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The Pimple Guide: Every Type of Acne, Explained

Zits, pimples, blemishes, breakouts…no matter what name you call your acne, we can all agree that those pesky spots are difficult to understand and even more confusing to treat. 

While we may not care what kind of pimple just popped up the night before headshots or a first date (as long as it’s gone by the AM), distinguishing what type of acne we’re dealing with is actually key to healing it faster. The next time a zit (or a few) pops up, consult this guide to better understand what type of acne you have and how best to treat it. Spoiler alert: When in doubt, salicylic acid.  


All acne is caused by clogged pores, but falls under one of two categories: Non-inflammatory and inflammatory.  


This type of acne is mild and occurs when pores or hair follicles become trapped with dead skin cells and/or sebum (also known as comedones). Non-inflammatory acne is visible, but not usually painful, and can be broken out into two types:

When the comedo—a.k.a. a clogged pore)—is partially open, the trapped oil and debris inside turns dark, resulting in what’s known as a blackhead (not to be confused with sebaceous filaments, which they're frequently mistaken for).

Another common misconception is that blackheads are clogged with dirt, but the dark color is actually a result of the debris becoming oxidized when exposed to air. To remove that trapped debris (and prevent blackheads), 
exfoliate regularly with our Microcrystal Exfoliator, which is gentle on acne-prone skin types).

Whiteheads, on the other hand, are closed comedones, or small, white bumps that protrude from the surface of the skin. Because the comedo is closed, the debris inside is not exposed to air and remains a white color. 

Non-inflammatory acne is tempting to pop or extract, especially because they’re so visible, but they should only be extracted by a professional. Instead, look for skincare ingredients that target excess sebum like the charcoal and clays found in our Purifying Mask.


Inflammatory acne is considered a more severe type of acne that results in hard, underground pimples that are usually painful to the touch. This type of acne, similarly to non-inflammatory acne, also occurs when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and sebum, but the addition of bacteria also causes an infection (hence, the inflammation). There are four different types: 

These underground pimples are red, pink, or dark in color and contain pus (that familiar white or yellow liquid made of white blood cells, designed to help defend the skin against infection). 

Papules look just like pustules, except they do not contain any pus. When it comes to papules, drying treatments don’t work as there is nothing to absorb. Instead, use the zinc and willow bark extract in our Clarifying Serum to control oil production and soothe inflammation, calming the infection down.

You can think of nodules as a more severe form of papules. These hard, large bumps are deep beneath the layers of the skin and do not have a head. You can not pop these types of pimples (so don’t try!). Nodular acne might not respond to topical acne treatments and may require a prescription, so if this type of acne isn’t responding to your products, you may want to pay a visit to your dermatologist.

Considered the most severe type of acne, cysts are found even deeper beneath the skin than nodules, can appear red, pink, or white in color, and are often very painful. Cystic acne is sometimes considered to be hormonal (meaning it appears around your cycle or due to a hormone imbalance, like in PCOS or during menopause) and can take a few weeks, even months, to heal and go away completely. Never attempt to pop or pick at cysts, as acne scarring is common. Again, a derm may be your best bet for this type of acne if your go-to treatments don’t appear to be working. 


Now that you know the type of pimples your skin is dealing with, understand the best ingredients for treating these breakouts.

Types of Acne
When in doubt, salicylic acid is a hero ingredient for both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne.
Cleanse your face with the Acne-Calming Cream Cleanser and spray spots from the neck-down with the Acne-Control Body Mist (both of which contain OTC-strength salicylic acid) to keep all kinds of breakouts at bay. 

Many view retinol as an ingredient for aging skin, but believe it or not, the vitamin A derivative was originally meant to be an acne treatment. Retinol speeds up cellular turnover rate, pushing old skin cells to the surface (thus, unclogging pores) and healing pimples and the marks they leave behind. Our Gentle Retinol Serum is a great choice particularly if you have papules, since retinol reaches deep beneath the surface to treat the infection. For body acne, use our Retinol Body Lotion to clear up these kinds of spots.

This centuries-old ingredient dries out pus, making it a great ingredient for any pimple with a head (such as pustules and whiteheads). Cover non-inflammatory pimples with a layer of our Acne Drying Treatment. The sulfur kills bacteria and calms inflammation to heal the spot; it's also a great way to ensure you don't pop or pick, which can worsen the breakout.

Severe, inflammatory pimples (such as cystic acne) may need a stronger treatment. If salicylic acid isn't doing the trick, reach out to your dermatologist. She or he may recommend a prescription to clear up these kinds of breakouts.

Shop an acne skin routine below.