How to treat inflammatory acne

Say goodbye to painful, swollen acne with these tips to help reduce and prevent it.

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Curology Team
May 18, 2022 · 7 min read

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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.
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If you’ve ever had one of those big, swollen blemishes (as many of us have), you know how frustrating—and sometimes painful—they can be. If you’re wondering how to treat inflamed acne like a pro, we’re here to help. At Curology, we’re all about helping people understand what’s really going on with their skin, and that includes learning the correct terminology. 

Although “inflamed acne” and “inflammatory acne” may seem similar or even synonymous, the proper medical term for this common type of blemish is “inflammatory acne.” Now that we’ve got the lingo down, let’s look at the specifics of inflammatory acne, including its causes and the best ways to treat and help prevent it.

What is inflammatory acne?

Have you ever experienced a blemish that looked more plump and bulbous than others? If so, it was probably a type of inflammatory acne, which, just like it sounds, is a type of pimple that appears swollen and inflamed. Inflammatory acne develops when bacteria comes into the picture with other typical acne-causing culprits, like dead skin cells and sebum, which clog your pores.¹ In addition to your face, it can also appear elsewhere on your body, like your back. While it can be incredibly annoying to deal with, inflammatory acne is also very common.

scar-acne-on-face

It was previously thought that lesions of acne vulgaris were clearly split into two groups, noninflammatory and inflammatory. Whiteheads and blackheads (closed and open comedones) were considered noninflammatory, and papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts were considered inflammatory. In recent decades, however, research has revealed that inflammation likely plays a role in all stages in the development of acne vulgaris lesions.² As many people (including medical professionals!) still split the lesions into noninflammatory and inflammatory, we will be doing so in this post.

What are the different types of inflammatory acne?

One of the first steps in finding the right treatment is understanding the specific type of acne you’re experiencing. That’s why it’s important to know that there are many different types of acne, including both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions like whiteheads and blackheads.

The most common types of inflammatory acne include:

  • Papules: These most often appear as small pink or red bumps on your skin.³

  • Pustules: These contain pus and may also have a red ring around them.

  • Cysts: These sit deep under the skin and are filled with pus. Cystic acne can be painful and cause scarring.⁴

  • Nodules: These also occur deep below the surface of the skin, like cysts, and may be painful or sensitive.

types-of-acne

What causes inflammatory acne?

Acne starts to occur when your pores are clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil. Add bacteria to that equation, and you may end up with inflammatory acne. What causes that inflammation? It has been traditionally thought that your body’s natural defense mechanisms respond to the bacteria and inflammation develops as a result.⁵ However, recent research shows this may be more complex than we thought; inflammation has been found to be present even earlier in the process!

Wondering if acne inflammation is related to your diet? While what you eat may affect acne,⁶ the truth is many different factors come into play, including hormones, genetics, and stress.

How to treat inflammatory acne

Acne may be a very common condition (part of the human experience, you might even say) but thankfully, it’s treatable. If you’re wondering how to treat inflammatory acne, we’re here to help with a few different options. Just remember, as, with any skin condition, it’s important to always talk to your dermatology provider before trying different treatments. That way you’ll have a professional opinion that’s tailored to your unique skin, and you’ll also be aware of any potential side effects that treatment may have.

Over-the-counter acne products

One place to start is at your local pharmacy, where plenty of topical acne treatment options exist. When it comes to searching for some of the best inflammatory acne products, ingredients to look for include:

  • Benzoyl peroxide. Because it helps fight bacteria that cause inflammation, benzoyl peroxide is a good ingredient to treat acne.⁷ It comes in face cleansers as well as spot treatments you can apply to try to reduce inflammatory acne overnight.

  • Salicylic acid. Dr. Faranak Kamangar, a board-certified dermatologist at Curology says, “Salicylic acid is another effective ingredient for fighting acne, and is often found in many acne-fighting face wash and skin care products.”

  • Retinoids. Many over-the-counter topical retinoid products exist, but stronger varieties require a prescription. These can be used in combination with benzoyl peroxide to optimize their effectiveness.⁸

Medical treatments

If you’re experiencing persistent or severe acne and are ready to see a dermatology provider, a variety of medical treatment options exist: 

  • Topical antibiotics. Doctors often prescribe topical antibiotic creams to help treat inflammatory acne because they specifically combat bacteria that contribute to it.⁹

  • Corticosteroid injection. Dr. Kamangar shared, “For large and painful acne cysts, intralesional steroid injections can be very helpful to reduce swelling and inflammation. This should be done by a board-certified dermatologist.”

  • Oral antibiotics. If you have a severe-to-moderate breakout, a dermatologist may prescribe oral antibiotics to help calm and clear your skin.¹⁰

  • Oral contraceptives or spironolactone. Hormones can play a role in acne, which is why—for some people—taking a birth control pill that affects hormones may help reduce acne, both inflammatory and noninflammatory.

  • Isotretinoin. Another acne treatment that can be taken orally, isotretinoin (formerly called Accutane) is a derivative of vitamin A that can be used to treat severe acne.¹¹

  • Prescription topical retinoids. Again, many retinoids are available over the counter, but several prescription-only options exist as well, including tretinoin and tazarotene. These have been shown to reduce inflammatory acne.¹²

How to help prevent inflammatory acne

Sometimes the best way to treat inflammatory acne is to take steps to prevent it from developing in the first place. Creating a simple skincare routine—and sticking to it!—can help limit breakouts over time, in addition to making your skin both look and feel healthy. If your products don’t seem to work right away, take a deep breath. Patience is key! It can take weeks for you to notice results. Remember, skincare is a journey. Some tips to help you along that journey to clearer skin include:

  • Cleanse. Finding a facial cleanser that works well for your unique skin—and using it regularly—is key to preventing inflammatory acne. Look for a gentle cleanser with acne-fighting ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. 

  • Avoid ingredients that may clog pores. Opting for non-comedogenic hair and makeup products can help keep your pores unclogged and, in turn, reduce the chances of breakouts.¹³

  • Apply moisturizer. Dry skin may lead to irritation, which can worsen acne breakouts.  Using a facial moisturizer regularly can help prevent dryness and keep your skin looking its best.

  • Hands-off. We know how tempting it can be to pop acne, especially if it’s inflammatory. But doing so can cause you to push bacteria and excess oil even deeper into your skin, possibly worsening the inflammation—so do your best to resist the urge to pick.

We know all of this can seem like a lot to take in. Knowledge is power, but if all this info feels overwhelming, you can get a personalized, dermatologist-designed skincare routine.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Let Curology’s medical professionals do the work to find the most effective ingredients to treat your inflammatory acne and other skincare concerns. Sign up for a 30-day free trial for just $4.95 + tax (to cover shipping and handling). That way, all you have to do is keep up that routine. You got this!

FAQs

What is inflammatory acne?

A type of pimple that appears swollen and inflamed. Inflammatory acne develops when bacteria comes into the picture with other typical acne-causing culprits, like dead skin cells and sebum, which clog your pores. In addition to your face, it can also appear elsewhere on your body, like your back. While it can be incredibly annoying to deal with, inflammatory acne is also very common.

What are the different types of inflammatory acne?

  • Papules: These most often appear as small pink or red bumps on your skin.

  • Pustules: These contain pus and may also have a red ring around them.

  • Cysts: These sit deep under the skin and are filled with pus. Cystic acne can be painful and cause scarring.

  • Nodules: These also occur deep below the surface of the skin, like cysts, and may be painful or sensitive.

What causes inflammatory acne?

Acne starts to occur when your pores are clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil. Add bacteria to that equation, and you may end up with inflammatory acne. What causes that inflammation? It has been traditionally thought that your body’s natural defense mechanisms respond to the bacteria and inflammation develops as a result.

• • •

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

1. Toyoda, M., & Morohashi, M.  Pathogenesis of acne. Medical electron microscopy: official journal of the Clinical Electron Microscopy Society of Japan. (2001).

2. Tanghetti E. A. The role of inflammation in the pathology of acne. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (2013).

3. American Academy of Dermatology. How to treat different types of acne. (n.d.).

4. Cleveland Clinic Staff. Acne. (2020, September 1).

5. Tanghetti, Emil A. The role of inflammation in the pathology of acne. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (September 2013).

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

7.  Kawashima, Makoto et al. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. The Journal of dermatology. ( November 2017).

8. Kolli, Sree S., et al. Topical Retinoids in Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review. American journal of clinical dermatology. (June 2019).

9. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, February 17).

10. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris Ibid.

11. Vallerand, I. A., et al. Efficacy and adverse events of oral isotretinoin for acne: a systematic review. The British Journal of Dermatology. (January 2018).

12. Leyden, J., et al. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and therapy, (September, 2017).

13. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 skin care habits that can worsen acne. (n.d.).

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.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
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.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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