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Blackheads, Whiteheads, Cystic... All the Types of Pimples 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. 

Non-Inflammatory Acne

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 (aka clogged pore) is partially open, the trapped oil and debris inside turns dark, resulting in what’s known as a blackhead. A 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. 

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. Exfoliating on a regular basis to release trapped dead skin cells and incorporating skincare ingredients that target excess sebum (such as sulfur, found in our Game Over Acne Drying Treatment) will effectively prevent and treat both whiteheads and blackheads.

Inflammatory Acne

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). Game Over Acne Drying Treatment works for pustules, too, since its 10% sulfur draws pus to the surface of the skin, dries it out, and unclogs the pore. 

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 no pus to absorb. Instead, reach for a spot treatment that uses a combo of salicylic acid and tea tree oil to soothe inflammation and fight bacteria.

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 derm.

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 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. 

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