The Two Types of Acne (and How to Treat Both)

Wendy Rodewald
types of acne

Photo: IMaxTree

Adult acne is the bane of our lives: shouldn’t we have aged out of zits when we left high school? Contrary to our teenage beliefs, all spots are not created equal—it turns out that there are different types of acne that we should know about.

“The main two categories of acne are ‘inflammatory’ and ‘non-inflammatory’ acne,” says Dr. Eric Schweiger, NYC dermatologist and founder of the Clear Clinic.

Non-Inflammatory Types of Acne
“Non-inflammatory acne lesions are blackheads and whiteheads, officially ‘open and closed comedones,’” Dr. Schweiger explains.

A blackhead is a pore that has become clogged by oil, dead skin cells and bacteria but remains open. Because the clog has been exposed to oxygen, it turns dark in color.

A whitehead is also a clogged pore, but one that is closed instead of open.

Inflammatory Acne
“Inflammatory acne is what is traditionally thought of as pimples and cysts. Inflammatory acne lesions, also known as cystic acne, can lead to scarring. It is characterized by red bumps that are often painful and deep and should never be treated without the assistance of a skincare professional.”

An inflamed red bump with a white, pus-filled head is called a pustule. Resist the urge to squeeze; doing so can cause scarring and push the bacteria deeper into the pore.

Papules are red bumps without a head.

Cystic acne
The most severe type of acne, this is a large, painful bump that forms deep under the skin and can persist for weeks or months.

Clearing up non-inflammatory types of acne may be a bit simpler, but the treatment is the same for both types. “All types of acne are best treated with over the counter products containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur or tea tree oil in combination with in-office procedures, such as blue light therapy and Isolaz laser,” says Dr. Schweiger. See your dermatologist for a treatment targeted to your specific skin issues.

Read more: How to Get Rid of Acne Scars Once and For All