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Types of Acne and How to Treat them

Updated: Mar 7


What are the different types of acne?

There are many various types of acne and each with different causes. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what type of acne you have to seek appropriate treatment.

The different forms of acne include:

1. Whiteheads

A whitehead forms when substances on the skin such as dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria clog pores in the skin. One of the main reasons for clogged pores is hormonal changes in the body over-producing oil on the skin. Some of the reasons for hormonal variations include puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy.

2. Blackheads Similar to whiteheads, blackheads are caused by clogged pores. However, when the top of the whitehead remains open, the substances clogging the pore oxidize and turn dark, forming blackheads.

3. Papules

Papules are small inflamed red bumps on the skin formed due to a comedone rupture. As excess oil and skin cells accumulate and plug a skin pore, bacteria living on the skin start to feed off of it, forming a comedone. When this comedone bursts, the bacteria can spread into the skin tissue as opposed to the skin surface. To fend off these bacteria, our body reacts by inflaming the affected skin, forming a papule.

4. Pustules

Pustules are formed when pus accumulates in papules, causing a yellow or white center. This pus is usually produced when the pore cavity is infected. If a pustule becomes hard and painful it turns into a cyst.

5. Cystic Acne

Being the most severe type of acne, cystic acne is easily identifiable due to the formation of large pus-filled cysts underneath the skin, redness, white bumps and them being painful when touched. Cysts can form deep under the skin’s surface due to bacteria and other substances that get trapped in the pores of the skin. If you are more predisposed to hormonal imbalances or have oily skin, it is more likely that you will develop cystic acne than others.

6. Nodules

Nodules usually present as hard lumps underneath the skin. These can be formed anywhere on the body but are mostly found on the armpits, groin, head and neck region; and lungs. Nodules in different regions of the body have varying causes. However, the most common cause for nodules would be inflammation of the skin due to an infection.

Treatments for acne

1. Over-the-Counter Topical Medications

  • Retinoids

Skincare products containing retinoids can help with mild acne. These products reduce the formation of clogged pores by boosting cell turnover and can also decrease the number of acne scars on the skin. As a result, these products are highly effective in treating whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples (papules and pustules). In addition, products with retinol (a specific type of retinoid) can improve skin texture, uneven skin tone, and texture and have even been discovered to have anti-aging properties.

  • Azelaic acid

Products containing naturally occurring azelaic acid are both antibacterial and effective in managing red and inflamed skin. This allows for effective treatment and prevention of moderate acne by removing bacteria from the pores of the skin. In addition, similar to retinoids, it increases the cell turnover rate. Most over-the-counter products contain less than 15% of azelaic acid and take a while to show results on the skin. Some side effects of azelaic acid include slight irritation to the skin and redness.

  • Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a skin exfoliator, ensuring pores in the skin are kept clear. As a result, skincare products with salicylic acid are especially effective in keeping away and reducing whiteheads and blackheads. Similar to azelaic acid, the complete effects of salicylic effects take a few weeks to be seen.

2. Acne Treatment Procedures

  • Phototherapy

Phototherapy is most effective in treating mild and moderate acne. By using blue or red light, doctors can kill excess and harmful bacteria on the skin without injuring the skin. Research has shown that phototherapy with blue light managed to significantly decrease inflammation and acne on patients’ skin. Like any other treatment, phototherapy has its side effects which include redness, dryness, swelling, and differences in skin color. In addition, phototherapy makes the skin highly sensitive to sunlight for a few days after the treatment, so it is important to ensure you keep away from sunlight for these days.

  • Chemical peels

There are three layers of chemical peels - light, medium and deep. Light chemical peels are the most common chemical peels due to their convenience of having no downtime. However, it only targets the surface of the skin, focusing on unclogging pores and removing wrinkles. While multiple light chemical peels have been proven to reduce acne, it is mostly used as a supplement to an already-existing acne-targeted skincare routine. In addition, light chemical peels are a short-term solution and have to be gotten often for longer-lasting results.

Medium and deep chemical peels, as the names suggest, aim to reach deeper layers of the skin. Medium chemical peels are effective in removing deeper wrinkles and acne scars while deep chemical peels focus on skin damaged by the sun, scars, and discoloration.

  • Cortisone injection

Injecting cortisone into a nodule or large cyst can reduce the redness, inflammation, and pain of such acne. Although the acne may not fully fade immediately, a significant improvement can be seen and felt after the injection. This allows the acne to heal by itself in a week or more. Even though cortisone is highly effective for cystic acne, it is only a short-term solution and cysts might still break out in the future.

3. Medication

If in spite of the aforementioned self-care treatments your acne persists or does not get better, it would be a good idea to see a dermatologist. The dermatologist can help reduce your acne with prescription drugs or recommend other treatments for you to achieve your unique skin goals. Doctors might recommend you take antibiotics, dapsone, or retinoid-like drugs to control your acne.

Schedule a consultation today and start your acne recovery journey today.


In brief, the most common causes of acne are excess dirt and oil on the skin as well as hormonal changes. To prevent acne from getting worse, it is important to keep areas prone to acne clean. This includes avoiding touching or picking these areas. Additionally, it can be helpful to try over-the-counter medications and treatment procedures to an extent. However, if the acne is constant and gets worse, it is important and appropriate to get the opinion of a medical professional.

This blog post was medically reviewed by Dr Summer Zhang.


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