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How to treat different types of acne


To see clearer skin, it helps to know what types of blemishes you're dealing with. Each type requires different treatment.

What’s that blemish?

Is that a blackhead, papule, or something else? See what the different acne blemishes looks like and how to treat them.

Illustration of woman with blemishes

Blackheads and whiteheads

These appear when pores become clogged with excess oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells. If the pore closes up, you’ll see a tiny bump that looks white or flesh colored. These are whiteheads.

Blackheads and whiteheads

Blackheads (dark spots) and pimples

If the pore fills with debris but stays open, you’ll see a blackhead. The black dots aren’t dirt, so resist scrubbing. It will only worsen your acne.

Blackheads and pimples

Treating whiteheads and blackheads

To unclog pores, dermatologists recommend using a retinoid. You can buy one retinoid, adapalene, without a prescription. You’ll also want to use a benzoyl peroxide wash. It can help get rid of the excess P. acnes bacteria on your skin.

Woman shopping acne medication

Stubborn whiteheads and blackheads

Give treatment six to eight weeks to work. If you still see blemishes, you may want to see a dermatologist. A procedure like comedo (medical term for blackheads and whiteheads) extraction may help. Prescription-strength acne treatment is another option.

Comedo extraction

Early pimples

When excess oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells push deeper into the skin and cause inflammation (redness and swelling), you’ll see small, red bumps. The medical word for this type of acne blemish is a papule. They feel hard. If you have a lot of papules, the area may feel like sandpaper.

Early pimples

Treating papules

To clear this type of acne blemish, try washing your face twice daily with an acne face wash that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. If you have a lot of papules, it can be helpful to see a dermatologist.

Female adolescent with papules

Pus-filled pimples

The medical term for this type of acne blemish is pustule. These blemishes are a lot like papules, except that pustules contain a yellowish fluid. You’ll often see a yellow- or white-colored center, as shown here.

Pus-filled pimples

Treating pustules

To treat, wash your face with an acne product that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Resist the temptation to pop these. It can worsen acne. If you don’t see results from treatment in six to eight weeks, see a dermatologist.

Woman treating acne pustules

Acne nodules and cysts

These acne blemishes penetrate deep into the skin, and often cause permanent acne scars when they heal. If you have acne that looks like this, you’ll need a dermatologist’s help to treat it. The sooner you start treatment, the fewer permanent scars you’ll have.

Acne nodules and cysts

Virtually everyone with acne can see clear skin

If you feel discouraged with your acne treatment and believe that nothing will work, you’re not alone. Don’t give up. Effective treatment is available. Sometimes, it requires a dermatologist’s help.

Before and after acne treatment

Images
Slides 1, 4, 5, 7, and 9: Thinkstock

Slide 2: Image used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998; 39(2 Pt 3):S34-7.

Slides 3, 6, and 8: Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

Slides 10 and 11: Images used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2001;45(2):187-95.

References
Habif TP, Campbell, JL, et al. “Comedone acne” and “Pustular acne.” In: Dermatology DDxDeck. Mosby Elsevier, China, 2006: Cards #30,31.

Zaenglein AL and Thiboutot DM. “Acne vulgaris.” In: Bolognia JL, et alDermatology. (second edition). Mosby Elsevier, Spain, 2008:495-507.

Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, et al. “Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74:945-73.

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