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Getting clearer skin: Understanding and treating pustules

Experts share the causes, treatments, and prevention strategies for pustules.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on May 30, 2024 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
Woman with Pimple
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on May 30, 2024 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

What are pustules?

Today, we’re diving into the glamorous world of pustules—pus-filled bumps that can pop up when you least expect them. If you’re struggling with these unwelcome visitors to your skin, trust us, you’re not alone. 9.4% of people across the globe suffer from¹ acne and know how frustrating it can be!

But here’s the good news: Understanding pustules is the first step towards managing and treating them. Here, we’ll explore what causes them, how they differ from other types of acne, and, most importantly, how you can effectively treat them.

Let’s get started!

What are pustules?

Pustules can look like angry red bumps on your skin that are filled with pus.² They’re a type of acne lesion and are part of what dermatologists call the acne grading system, falling under level 3. Now, this grading system for acne goes from Grade 1 to Grade 4. It’s like a roadmap showing how severe your acne is. 

Let’s break it down.³

  • Grade 1 (Comedonal Acne): This is the mildest form of acne and appears as small bumps on the forehead or chin. There are two types: open comedones (blackheads) and closed comedones (whiteheads). Blackheads happen when the pores get clogged with sebum and dead skin cells, creating little dark spots. Whiteheads are similar, but the pore opening is smaller and less visible.

  • Grade 2 (Mild Inflammatory Acne): Here, things get a bit more noticeable. You’ll see small, red, slightly raised spots called papules. Along with those comedones from Grade 1, the skin starts showing more signs of redness and inflammation.

  • Grade 3 (Moderate Inflammatory Acne): This is where you enter the pustule zone. These are like papules but have pus in them, giving them a white or yellowish top. This level indicates more serious inflammation.

  • Grade 4 (Severe Inflammatory Acne): This is the big league of acne, the most severe form. Here, you’ll see lots of pustules, but also larger and more painful nodules and cysts. These can be quite sore and have a higher risk of leaving scars.

Pustules can be pretty bothersome and even painful. And if you’re not careful, they could lead to scarring. So, it’s important to manage them properly.⁴

What causes pustules?

Pustules are caused by a mix of oil and dead skin cells collecting inside the pores. These bumps are most often associated with acne vulgaris, a pretty common condition, especially in areas with lots of oil-producing glands like your face, neck, chest, upper back, and arms.⁵

A few things contribute to the formation of pustules. Hormonal changes can ramp up the oil production in your skin. More oil can mean more chances for pustules to form. The proliferation of bacteria is known to cause acne. These bacteria love to thrive in oily environments, which only adds to the problem.⁶

Blocked pores are another cause. This happens when keratin (a protein in your skin) and sebum (the oil your skin produces) get trapped beneath the skin’s surface. When these get blocked up and can’t reach the skin's surface, it sets the stage for pustules to develop.⁷

Tips for preventing pustules 

It’s possible to prevent pustules with the right approach and a bit of patience. Here are some friendly expert tips to keep those blemishes at bay.

  • Gentle cleansing: Start and end your day by cleansing your face with a mild acne face wash. Look for key ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. These champs help reduce oil and bacteria, key culprits in acne.⁸ Using a wash with benzoyl peroxide can help reduce C.acnes bacteria on your skin, decreasing inflammation and pustule formation.⁹

  • Be kind to your skin: When washing your face, go easy. Harsh scrubbing can actually make things worse. Gentle motions are key.¹⁰

  • Choose products wisely: Pick skincare and makeup products that are labeled non-comedogenic. This means they won’t clog your pores, which is a big plus in preventing acne. Here’s a handy article to learn more about reviewing your skincare products.¹¹

  • Look to retinoids for help: Consider over-the-counter treatments containing retinoids like adapalene. They help unclog pores and stop new acne from forming.¹²

  • Hands off: Tempted to pop those pustules? Don’t! It can push the infection deeper and lead to scarring. Keeping your hands off your face also prevents the spread of bacteria and further irritation.¹³

  • Patience is key: Remember, acne treatments usually take six to eight weeks to show results. Stick with your routine and give it time to work.¹⁴

  • See a dermatology professional: If over-the-counter treatments aren’t cutting it, a dermatology professional should be your next stop. They can prescribe stronger medications or perform procedures like comedone extraction for stubborn cases.

  • Diet and stress management: While the link between diet and acne isn’t set in stone, a balanced diet and stress management can positively affect your skin health.¹⁵

  • Sun protection: Use a non-comedogenic sunscreen daily, especially since some acne treatments can make your skin more sun-sensitive.¹⁶

Remember, achieving clear skin is a process. Be patient, and don’t hesitate to seek professional help for personalized treatment

You’ve got this! 

The top 3 science-backed treatments for pustules 

When it comes to treating pustules, science points us toward many treatments—but three stand out: Benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids.

Let’s unpack into how each works to keep your skin clear and healthy.

1. Benzoyl peroxide (BPO)

BPO is a powerhouse in the world of acne treatment, particularly effective against pustules. Its antimicrobial properties target C. acnes, the notorious acne-causing bacteria, reducing both bacterial proliferation and inflammation. One of BPO’s standout features is its keratolytic action. It aids in exfoliating the skin and unclogging pores, which helps prevent comedones that can evolve into more severe forms of acne—including pustules.¹⁷

BPO can also decrease oil production, a major player in acne development. It promotes skin cell turnover, preventing the buildup of dead skin cells and sebum that clog pores. However, you should be mindful of potential side effects like skin irritation, dryness, and redness, especially with higher concentrations. BPO comes in various concentrations, from 2.5% to 10%. It’s wise to start with lower concentrations to minimize irritation and gradually increase as needed.¹⁸

A word of caution: BPO can bleach hair and fabrics, so handle it with care. It’s often used in combination with other acne medications, like topical retinoids or antibiotics, to enhance its effectiveness.¹⁹

Remember to always consult a dermatology provider to tailor a treatment regimen for your specific skin needs!

2. Salicylic acid 

Another over-the-counter favorite for acne treatment is salicylic acid. It’s particularly suitable for those who can’t tolerate benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid works differently; as a beta-hydroxy acid, it dissolves the bonds that hold dead skin cells together. This exfoliating action unclogs pores and reduces acne lesions, including blackheads and whiteheads.²⁰

Salicylic acid is generally well-tolerated and a good option for sensitive skin types. Available in cleansers, toners, and spot treatments, its concentrations are typically around 2%. This level is effective for daily use and is a common ingredient in many acne products. Though less potent than retinoids, it’s well known for treating mild to moderate acne.²¹

3. Retinoids

Retinoids, derivatives of Vitamin A, are a top-tier choice for treating a range of acne types, including pustules. Topical retinoids like tretinoinadapalene, and tazarotene are effective against both non-inflammatory comedones and inflammatory lesions.

Retinoids are to be applied once daily, covering the entire affected area rather than spot-treating. To minimize irritation, start with a lower application frequency and gradually increase. But be aware of side effects like dryness and increased sun sensitivity! It’s crucial to use non-comedogenic moisturizers and sunscreens alongside your retinoids to ensure they work properly.²² Retinoids are powerful, and you should connect with a dermatology provider to determine if they’re the best treatment option for your skin.

The key takeaways

  • Pustules are pus-filled bumps that are a type of acne lesion.

  • Pustules occur due to factors like oil and dead skin cells clogging pores, hormonal changes, and an increase in acne-causing bacteria.

  • The top three treatments for pustules include benzoyl peroxide (BPO), salicylic acid, and retinoids, which help to reduce bacterial proliferation and inflammation.

  • To keep pustules at bay, best practices include gently cleansing skin with a mild acne face wash, avoiding harsh scrubbing, and choosing non-comedogenic products.

  • Over-the-counter treatments like retinoids can be effective.

  • For a personalized approach to managing acne, including pustules, Curology offers customized treatment plans from a team of dermatological professionals.

Clear your acne with Curology 

Dealing with acne, especially pustules can sometimes feel like a never-ending battle. But you don’t have to fight it alone. If you’re looking for a more personalized approach to clearing your acne,* Curology could be the answer you’re searching for. At Curology, we understand that everyone’s skin is different, so we offer custom formulas tailored to your specific skin needs.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Whether you’re struggling with pustules, blackheads, or any other type of acne, our team of licensed dermatology professionals is here to guide you every step of the way. We’ll help you find the right blend of ingredients to target your unique skin concerns and get you on the path to clearer, healthier skin.

Ready to take control of your skin health? Check out our custom acne treatments here** and say goodbye to pustules and hello to clearer skin.


What is the main cause of pustules?

Pustules mainly pop up due to a combination of oil and dead skin cells getting trapped in your pores. Hormonal changes that increase oil production, along with the proliferation of acne-causing bacteria also play a role in creating pustules.

How do you get rid of pustules?

To bid farewell to pustules, start with gentle cleansing using a mild acne face wash containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Avoid harsh scrubbing and opt for skincare and makeup that are non-comedogenic. Over-the-counter retinoids can be a game-changer too. And remember, avoid popping those pustules!

What is a pustule vs pimple?

A pimple is a general term for any kind of small, inflamed skin lesion typical of acne. Pustules are a specific type of pimple that contain pus, making them appear white or yellowish at the top. They’re part of the moderate stage of acne.

Should I remove pus from pustules?

Resist the temptation to squeeze or pop pustules. This can push the infection deeper, potentially causing scarring. Let them heal naturally or seek treatment that helps reduce inflammation and clears the infection.

Why won’t I stop getting pustules?

If you're regularly battling pustules, it could be due to several reasons like persistent hormonal imbalances, skincare products that clog your pores, or a lack of a consistent skincare regimen. If over-the-counter treatments aren’t helping, it’s time to consult a dermatology provider for a personalized approach.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Tan, J.K.L. and Bhate, K. A global perspective on the epidemiology of acne. Br J Dermatol. (July 2015).

  2. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Dermatology Terms. (n.d).

  3. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. (2023, August 17).

  4. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  5. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  6. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  7. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  8. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to treat different types of acne. (2023, September 12).

  9. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to treat different types of acne. Ibid.

  10. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Acne: Tips for managing. (2022, November 16).

  11. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Acne: Tips for managing. Ibid.

  12. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to treat different types of acne. Ibid.

  13. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Acne: Tips for managing. Ibid.

  14. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Acne: Tips for managing. Ibid.

  15. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Can the right diet get rid of acne? (n.d.).

  16. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Acne: Tips for managing. Ibid.

  17. Yang, Z., et al. Topical benzoyl peroxide for acne. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (2020, March 16).

  18. Yang, Z., et al. Topical benzoyl peroxide for acne. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Ibid.

  19. Yang, Z., et al. Topical benzoyl peroxide for acne. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Ibid.

  20. Arif, T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2015, August 26).

  21. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. (2011, April 19).

  22. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

Maria Borowiec is a certified Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She received her Master in Nursing from University of California, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, CA.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

**Restrictions apply. See website for full details and important safety information.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
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Maria Borowiec, NB-BC

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