Types of acne: blackheads, whiteheads, and beyond

Our guide to acne vulgaris

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Curology Team
Dec 18, 2018 · 4 min read

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.

As far as we’re concerned, there’s no such thing as TMI when it comes to your skin. To get rid of acne, it helps to understand what’s going on in those pores of yours. We’ve gone over what causes acne, but there are different types and stages of acne, too. Treatments like Curology help with all of them, but your plan of action may differ depending if you have mild acne, moderate acne, or severe acne.

Types of acne

Acne is a spectrum, from clogged pores and blackheads to pimples to cysts. Even one blackhead counts as acne!

  • Whiteheads: small clogged pores (aka closed comedones) that look like a small white “bump” because of trapped oil and dead skin cells.

  • Blackheads: small clogged pores (aka open comedones) that turn black because the trapped oil and skin cells are exposed to the air.

  • Papules: tender bumps with redness and swelling caused by inflammation, usually less than 5mm in size.

  • Pustules: “squeezable” inflamed pimples with a visible central core of pus (that white sludge we all know and love), usually raised, and anywhere from 1mm to 5mm in size.

  • Nodules: large, firm, reddish lumps that extend deeper than a papule and are often painful.

  • Cysts: those painful, under-the-skin pimples (sometimes referred to as blind pimples or invisible pimples) that seem to take forever to go away! Acne cysts are severely inflamed and/or draining bumps that go deep under the skin’s surface and may feel swollen and tender.

Stages of a pimple

Not every clogged pore or pimple will go through the same stages. That means not everyone who has a closed comedone, whitehead, or blackhead will be on their way to full-blown pustular acne (thank goodness)! It’s really more about the levels of severity, since as we mentioned above, acne is a spectrum. Especially if you treat your skin regularly with the right stuff, like your custom Curology superbottle, you can prevent mild acne such as clogged pores from growing into the bigger and badder forms.

  • Mild acne: a few pimples, papules, pustules, whiteheads, and/or blackheads that are close to the surface (non-inflammatory).

  • Moderate acne: more than a few comedones, papules, and/or pustules; more likely to be inflammatory acne.

  • Severe acne: many pimples, clogged pores, redness, and inflammation, as well as large cysts or acne nodules greater than 5mm in size.

While it was previously thought that acne fell into two categories: non-inflammatory and inflammatory, the latest research shows that all acne is caused by inflammation.

What’s going on in your pores?

Acne starts when the dead skin cells in your pores clog up the works. Normally, these skin cells slough off just fine. But when a pore gets clogged, sebum (the natural oils your body makes to keep your skin moisturized) and skin cells build up in there. The bacteria P. acnes, which naturally lives on the skin, loves to eat up this combo. Pretty gross, but that’s how acne happens!

Like a perfect storm, the oil, skin cells, and bacteria fill up the pore and overflow, leaking out into the nearby tissue and causing inflammation. That’s how one little pimple can turn into a full-blown breakout — especially if you pop it. (Don’t pop it!)

Treat Acne with Curology

We’re firm believers that when it comes to clearing up your skin and keeping it healthy and happy, knowledge really is power. Check out our Guides and the Curology blog to learn more need-to-know info that’ll help you along your (sk)individual journey.

We want to be your acne-fighting ally. Sign up for a free trial and get started with your custom acne treatment plan.

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