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  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

What you need to know about acne vulgaris, from symptoms to treatment

Acne vulgaris is an extremely common skin condition—here’s how to treat it.

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Curology Team
May 17, 2022 · 5 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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Pretty much everyone has experienced a breakout at some point in their life. For some people, pimples pop up every now and then, but for many others, they’re frustratingly persistent. These breakouts are formally known as acne vulgaris, a skin condition that encompasses a variety of different types of blemishes. While its name may sound complex, acne vulgaris is actually very common (as a matter of fact, “vulgaris” is Latin for “common”). Teenagers deal with acne vulgaris most frequently, though adults experience it as well. So if you’re one of the 50 million people in the United States¹ who experience breakouts, know this: You’re not alone. 

The good news is, these days, there are several ways to treat and help prevent acne vulgaris. The first step? Learning the facts, including the various types of acne vulgaris, symptoms, potential causes and contributing factors, and ways to treat it.

What is acne vulgaris?

The term “acne vulgaris” refers to several types of blemishes, including non-inflammatory comedones (AKA, whiteheads and blackheads), inflammatory acne (papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts), or a combination of both. The symptoms of acne vulgaris are a combination of these blemishes, and their severity may vary.² We’ll talk about these in more detail below.

acne-on-middle-age-woman

What causes acne vulgaris?

There are several contributing factors that result in acne vulgaris. It’s considered a chronic condition (we know that sounds scary, but don’t worry—we’re here to help) that starts in the body’s hair follicles. It’s caused by a combination of factors, including excess sebum production (the oil your skin naturally creates), a build-up of dead skin cells, and, in some cases, bacteria.³ Other factors, like hormones, genetics, stress, comedogenic (pore-clogging) haircare and skincare products, and diet can also contribute to acne breakouts.⁴ For some adult women, hormonal conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can also contribute.⁵

Dr. Faranak Kamangar, a board-certified dermatologist at Curology says, “Acne vulgaris is more likely to develop in areas where you have more sebaceous glands (face, chest, back), and these glands produce sebum that can lead to acne.”

What are the symptoms of acne vulgaris?

The symptoms of acne vulgaris are a combination of different acne lesions. Let’s look at some of the blemishes you may experience in further detail:

  • Whiteheads. Just as they sound, whiteheads are white raised bumps that are caused by a buildup of excess sebum and dead skin cells.⁶

  • Blackheads. Blackheads look like tiny black dots on your face and, like whiteheads, are also due to a buildup of excess oil and skin cells clogging your pores. Blackheads are “open” to the air whereas whiteheads are “closed” by a thin layer of skin.

  • Papules. Papules are a type of inflammatory acne that appear as small, raised pink or red bumps.

  • Pustules. Pustules are filled with pus and look similar to whiteheads but are red around the center of the blemish.

  • Cysts. Cysts are pus-filled pimples that fall into the inflammatory acne category. Cystic acne can cause acne scars.

  • Nodules. Nodules are deep, inflammatory pimples that are often painful.

Types of acne pimples

How is acne vulgaris diagnosed?

“If you think you may have acne, a dermatologist can evaluate your skin and confirm this diagnosis. A professional diagnosis of acne may help you better understand what could be causing your acne and the best form of treatment to help you clear your skin,” says Dr. Kamangar. 

The severity of acne vulgaris varies; you could be diagnosed with mild acne, moderate acne, or severe acne, depending on a variety of factors, including the number of acne lesions you have.⁷ That said, there is currently no universal grading system for acne.

acne-skin-problems

How can acne vulgaris be treated?

Good news: there are many different options for the treatment of acne vulgaris. Remember, this skin condition is common among people of all ages, which means chances are, you know someone who has used one or more of these to help treat acne vulgaris. A very common treatment is topical therapy, which includes over-the-counter products and prescription-only options.

  • Benzoyl peroxide. A popular topical treatment that’s available without a prescription, this ingredient fights the bacteria that contribute to inflammatory acne.⁸ You can find benzoyl peroxide in facial cleansers and as a leave-on topical acne treatment.

  • Salicylic acid. Another common ingredient that’s available without a prescription, salicylic acid is also often found in facial cleansers and has been shown to reduce lesions from acne vulgaris.⁹

  • Retinoids. Topical retinoids are another popular treatment for acne vulgaris. Some of the most common types are available with a prescription from a dermatology provider and include adapalene, tretinoin, and tazarotene. Retinoids are typically used for acne vulgaris because they not only help clear blemishes but also help prevent new lesions from forming.¹⁰

  • Oral medications. Your doctor can also prescribe oral treatments for acne, like oral contraceptives, isotretinoin (a derivative of vitamin A), spironolactone, and oral antibiotics such as doxycycline.¹¹ Remember to talk with a medical professional to discuss the potential side effects of acne treatment and decide if it is the best for you.

  • Topical antibiotics. Topical antibiotics are another common acne vulgaris treatment. Clindamycin, in particular, is often used to treat inflammatory acne vulgaris.¹²

  • Last but not least, us! Curology is another great way to get treatment for acne vulgaris. With Curology, you get guidance from a licensed dermatology provider that can prescribe a formula with research-backed ingredients to fight your acne. You also have a 30-day free* trial, so you can be sure you love your Curology products before you fully commit.

We know living with acne vulgaris can be frustrating, but remember (and we can’t stress this enough): it’s extremely common and affects people of all ages and races. If anything, it just means you’re human!

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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At Curology, we’re all about sharing information so you can feel empowered when making decisions about your skin’s health. We know it can feel overwhelming trying to decide which treatment is right for you. That’s why Curology delivers dermatologist-designed skincare in simple routines to make taking care of your skin stress-free. Let us do the hard work while you treat your skin with what it needs.

FAQs

What is acne vulgaris?

The term “acne vulgaris” refers to several types of blemishes, including non-inflammatory comedones (AKA, whiteheads and blackheads), inflammatory acne (papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts), or a combination of both.

What causes acne vulgaris?

There are several contributing factors that result in acne vulgaris. It’s considered a chronic condition (we know that sounds scary, but don’t worry—we’re here to help) that starts in the body’s hair follicles. It’s caused by a combination of factors, including excess sebum production (the oil your skin naturally creates), a build-up of dead skin cells, and, in some cases, bacteria.

What are the symptoms of acne vulgaris?

  • Whiteheads. Just as they sound, whiteheads are white raised bumps that are caused by a buildup of excess sebum and dead skin cells. 

  • Blackheads. Blackheads look like tiny black dots on your face and, like whiteheads, are also due to a buildup of excess oil and skin cells clogging your pores. Blackheads are “open” to the air whereas whiteheads are “closed” by a thin layer of skin.

  • Papules. Papules are a type of inflammatory acne that appear as small, raised pink or red bumps.

  • Pustules. Pustules are filled with pus and look similar to whiteheads but are red around the center of the blemish.

  • Cysts. Cysts are pus-filled pimples that fall into the inflammatory acne category. Cystic acne can cause acne scars.

  • Nodules. Nodules are deep, inflammatory pimples that are often painful.

How is acne vulgaris diagnosed?

“If you think you may have acne, a dermatologist can evaluate your skin and confirm this diagnosis. A professional diagnosis of acne may help you better understand what could be causing your acne and the best form of treatment to help you clear your skin,” says Dr. Kamangar.

• • •

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

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

2. Linda K. Oge, et al.Acne Vulgaris: Diagnosis and Treatment. American Family Physician. (2019, October 15).

3. Linda K. Oge, et al.Acne Vulgaris: Diagnosis and Treatment. American Family Physician. Ibid.

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

5. Ramezani Tehrani, Fahimeh et al. Prevalence of acne vulgaris among women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a systemic review and meta-analysis.”Gynecological endocrinology : the official journal of the International Society of Gynecological Endocrinology.( 2011, April 19).

6. Cleveland Clinic. Acne. Ibid.

7. Linda K. Oge, et al. Acne Vulgaris: Diagnosis and Treatment. Ibid.

8. 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).

9. Jacqueline Woodruff, et al.  A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris.(2013, April 1).

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

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

12. Lazic Mosler, E., et al. Topical antibiotics for acne.The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2018 January 23).

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. Trial is 30 days + $4.95 shipping and handling.

• • •
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

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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