Types of Acne

Dermatologists Katie Rodan, MD and Kathy Fields, MD

Recognizing Different Types of Acne

As dermatologists treating acne patients for over 25 years, Drs. Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields can tell you that the different types of acne present themselves in a wide variety of forms depending upon an individual's age, sex, ethnicity and skin type.

Acne can range from 1-2 nodules on an adult woman's chin due to her menstrual cycle to a cluster of blackheads on a guy's nose; a teen’s face full of red bumps and pustules to breakouts on an athlete's chest and back. Recognizing that your particular breakouts encompass the diagnosis of acne is your first step toward freeing yourself from this burdensome problem.

Noninflammatory Acne: Whiteheads & Blackheads

Blackheads and whiteheads are types of acne in which a plug, made up of sticky oil (sebum) and dead skin cells, is visible inside a pore and does not cause any associated inflammation or redness. Dermatologists call them "comedones."

Whitehead, Blackhead, Pustule, Cyst


If the plug enlarges and widens the pore, it’s called an open comedo or a blackhead. Blackheads are not caused by trapped dirt, even though that’s what they look like, so you can’t wash them away. The black or gray color comes from a buildup of melanin (the dark pigment of your skin) and oxidized oil.


A whitehead is a closed comedone. A thin covering of skin traps the plug beneath the pore’s surface, preventing the oil from oxidizing, keeping it white and preventing it from turning gray.

Inflammatory Acne: Pimples That Can Hurt

Inflammatory acne occurs when your immune system responds to the bacteria and trapped oil inside the hair follicle. The degree of inflammation associated with these acne types determines the size, redness, tenderness and potential to scar.


These are small- to medium-sized pink or red dome-shaped bumps that often feel tender to the touch.


These lesions have a yellow or white center with a red base. Pustules form when a plug deep inside a pore traps oil and bacteria, attracting white blood cells to fight the infection. The greater the inflammation, the redder and larger the pustule. Pus is simply the collection of dead white blood cells.

Nodules and Cysts

Nodules are large, solid and often painful bumps that extend into the deeper skin layers. Cysts are sac-like structures filled with liquid material consisting of red and white blood cells, oil and bacteria. Individual lesions may last for months and produce permanent scars. Therefore, seeking treatment from a dermatologist is highly recommended.