Acne is one of the most common skin conditions worldwide, affecting approximately 80% of youth and young adults in 2016 and between 40 and 50 million Americans at any one time, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). As well, while acne may typically be associated with adolescence, the skin condition can crop up at any age, appearing in newborn babies, young adults, and even as we surpass middle age. With causes of acne ranging from hormonal shifts and imbalances to friction, heat, genetics, skin hydration, and even air pollution, it becomes even more difficult to know how to treat your acne, particularly if you can’t identify the type of acne you’re experiencing. Use this guide to get you on the right track to defining and effectively treating your acne breakouts for smoother, clearer skin.
Different Types of Acne and the Right Acne Treatments
Before defining types of acne, it’s important to make some general notes. To start, acne vulgaris is the common technical name used to refer to acne; all forms of acne fall under this label.
“Comedo” or “comedones” are two other terms you should know. Comedones (which is the plural form of comedo) is a medical term for acne lesions or hair follicles that are clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells.
As a final note, it’s important to acknowledge that there may be several factors contributing to any one person’s acne condition. For this reason, while it’s essential to follow the best treatment protocol for your acne concerns, it’s necessary to note that you may require further assistance from a skin care professional to get to the root of your condition.
With those taken care of, let’s get started. The following are the main types of acne accompanied by the top ways to properly treat each type.
Blackheads and Whiteheads
Definitions: Blackheads and whiteheads are considered mild forms of acne. Blackheads are open comedones that are filled with dead skin and excess oil (not just dirt). Blackheads turn dark in color as a result of the contents being exposed to air. In contrast, whiteheads are closed comedones that are also filled with excess oil and dead skin cells. Whiteheads appear to have a white spot in their center where the comedone is clogged.
Treatments: Generally speaking, blackheads and whiteheads may be treated similarly. Over-the-counter skin care treatments containing acne-targeted ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, as well as some DIY at-home acne treatments, can be effective for removing dead skin cells and impurities while controlling the excess oil (sebum) that is clogging the pores. Gentle exfoliation with a warm washcloth may help unclog whiteheads in particular, while a healthy diet, proper hydration of the skin and body, and adequate sun protection can help to prevent excess dry skin. Finally, facial rejuvenation treatments may be an effective addition to a regular anti-acne skin care routine. Facial Rejuvenation treatments utilize a vacuum, rotating tip, and ultra-fine jet streams of saline solution to simultaneously open up pores and remove impurities, such as dry or dead skin cells and excess sebum. While these treatments deep-clean pores, they also massage the skin to boost local micro-blood circulation, enhancing the spread of nutrients released from the bloodstream to the skin and supporting healthy skin cell renewal. The result is clearer, healthier-looking skin.
Papules and Pustules
Definitions: Papules are clogged comedones that appear when whiteheads or blackheads irritate and damage surrounding skin. The affected skin becomes inflamed and appears red or pink in color; there is no white center. Affected areas may be tender to touch and attempting to pop papules usually leads to scarring.
Pustules are also inflamed comedones that appear as whiteheads surrounded by a red ring. These are what we commonly think of as pimples. They’re painful to touch and are filled with white or yellow pus, which is the result of immune cells trying to battle off bacteria in the affected comedone. Picking and popping can cause scarring, so it’s best to leave it to a skin care professional—though don’t wait too long and let the pimple pop on its own.
Treatments: For moderate to severe acne, a dermatologist or other skin care professional may prescribe the following products or treatments:
Antibiotics, including tetracycline, doxycycline, or amoxicillinTopical steroidsOral contraceptives for hormonal-related acneAntimicrobial or retinoid creamsIntense Pulsed Light (IPL) acne treatments
IPL-based acne treatments are an effective way to treat the root cause of most acne cases—Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes, bacteria. Utilizing IPL technology, these treatments combine the effects of blue and red light to simultaneously destroy acne-causing bacteria, while reducing inflammation and promoting faster healing.
Nodules and Cysts
Definitions: Like a larger version of papules, nodules appear large and inflamed and are firm to the touch. These are a result of clogged pores causing damage deep below the surface of the skin. Nodules are considered severe acne and may result in dark spots or scarring.
Cysts are the most severe type of acne. They appear as large, painful, red or white bumps deep in the skin that are filled with pus. Cysts risk severe skin complications and scarring, particularly if not properly treated by a dermatologist.
Treatments: Depending on their severity, dermatologists may recommend one of the following treatments for nodules and cysts:
Corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation and minimize painManual extraction to reduce damage to skin and remove infectionOral prescription medications, such as isotretinoin
Skin resurfacing or chemical peels may be utilized to encourage healing and the reduction in the appearance of scars and dark spots as a result of severe acne. Generally speaking, radio frequency (RF)-based skin resurfacing treatments may be preferred for a gentler yet effective approach with less downtime. Safe for all skin tones, these skin resurfacing treatments utilize an applicator tip with very small pins to create tiny micro-dermal wounds on the skin’s surface. Heat (via RF energy) is delivered through the pins deep below the skin’s surface, kickstarting the natural healing cycle to repair and replace damaged skin cells. At the completion of your skin resurfacing treatment plan, skin will appear smoother with a more even texture and a visible reduction in the appearance of acne scars.
The Next Step to Saying So Long to Your Acne
Now that you’re better able to identify the type of acne you may be experiencing, you’re hopefully better able to target breakouts with the appropriate treatments for a clearer, smoother, more radiant complexion. While some types may be effectively treated at home, those who are looking for professional solutions should be aware of what to look for in a provider and ensure they book with a certified treatment professional.