6 Ways to Battle Any Type of Acne

Acne can be a tough problem to crack. Most of us get a pimple or two occasionally. But sometimes, a bigger or more tenacious breakout can leave you scratching your head (and desperately scrubbing your face). Despite your best intentions, you may be making your skin worse by using ineffective skin care or applying the wrong makeup. It might seem easy to run by the corner drugstore to buy a cleanser or a spot treatment that will clear things up. But there are at least a dozen popular blemish-banishing ingredients, which all work best in different formulations and for different skin types.

Ahead, you can learn everything you need to know about the different kinds of acne that might be colonizing your pores. Clear skin isn’t easy to achieve, but identifying what kind of acne you have will make it so much easier to choose a successful treatment. As the American Academy of Dermatology notes, a common myth is that you need to let acne run its course. But in reality, it’s better for your skin — and for your self esteem — to use one of the many effective treatments that are available.

1. Blackheads

Couple laughing in bathroom

Blackheads, which often appear on your nose, are a non-inflammatory type of acne. | iStock.com

As the American Academy of Dermatology explains, there are numerous different kinds of pimples. But all of them start with clogged pores. One of the easiest types to understand is blackheads. Oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria can block your pores. If the pore stays open, the oil and skin cells are exposed to air and oxidize, which turns them black.

So, why do you always get them on your nose? Harpers Bazaar says that’s because your nose has the oiliest skin on your body. But you shouldn’t try to extract them yourself, since it’s easy to mix up large pores and hair follicles with blackheads.

How to treat them

Beautiful woman in a bathrobe applying skin moisturizer

Blackheads are relatively easy to treat as long as you remember to go easy on your skin. | iStock.com/Dejan_Dundjerski

Allure turned to eight top dermatologists for advice on eradicating blackheads. Rachel Nazarian recommends being gentle with your skin, since scrubbing hard will just do more damage to your skin. She also advises using a salicylic acid product to dissolve and loosen blackheads. Rebecca Kleinerman recommends retinoids, which you can find in low strengths to start slow. And Joshua Zeichner recommends seeing a dermatologist for medication if you have moderate to severe acne (not just the occasional blackhead).

2. Whiteheads

girl checking her face for pimple in mirror

Whiteheads are another kind of non-inflammatory acne. | iStock.com

Remember how a blackhead is a pore that’s clogged with oil, skin cells, and bacteria, but stays open at the top? A whitehead is the same kind of clogged pore, but with a closed top. Whiteheads, like blackheads, are classified as non-inflammatory forms of acne. (That means that there’s no redness or swelling involved.) Whiteheads look white because there’s a thin layer of skin covering the clogged pore that keeps the oil and dead skin inside from being exposed to oxygen and turning black.

How to treat them

woman squeezing pimple in front of mirror

Though it’s tempting to pop whiteheads, you need to be extremely gentle with your skin. | iStock.com

Refinery29 spoke to several dermatologists to learn the best ways to get rid of whiteheads. They advise against succumbing to the temptation to pop whiteheads. If you do want them popped, it’s a good idea to head to an esthetician or a dermatologist to have it done properly. Alternately, follow a dermatologist’s instructions on the right way to pop pimples if you just can’t keep your hands off.

It’s important to wash your face with a well-formulated cleanser at least twice a day. And you need to take off all of your makeup every night. If you have a problem with whiteheads, make sure that you avoid makeup with pore-clogging ingredients. Use a gentle exfoliant, and try serums with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. And try a mild vitamin A derivative, like retinol, to slough off dead skin cells.

3. Papules

young woman with clear complexion in the bathroom

Papules are red, inflamed pimples — the kind you probably picture when you think “acne.” | iStock.com

Papules (and another kind of acne, called pustules) occur when the walls of pores break, which causes bigger pimples than simple blackheads or whiteheads. Papules feel hard when you touch them. They’re probably what you think of when you think “acne.” They typically appear as small red bumps, but aren’t filled with fluid.

As you might have guessed, inflammation is a factor in this kind of acne. As Kerry Benjamin reports, inflammatory acne occurs when the walls of a hair follicle collapse. Then, oil gets trapped beneath the surface of your skin, and white blood cells rush to the area to fight infection, making the area and swollen and producing pus.

How to treat them

Man caring for his skin

Papules don’t have whiteheads and aren’t filled with fluid, so it’s better to use a spot treatment than to pick at them. | iStock.com

Bustle spoke to dermatologist Michael Lin to learn the best way to treat papules. Lin’s advice? Apply a 5% benzoyl peroxide spot treatment. It’ll kill acne-causing bacteria, and will quickly shrink the pimple. Papules often don’t have a whitehead. If you try to pop or press them, they’re likely to scar. And because they’re inflamed, they’re also likely to hurt if you try to extract them. Your best bet? Dot on your spot treatment, and then leave them alone.

4. Pustules

Man looking in mirror

Pustules are red, inflamed pimples that are filled with fluid. | iStock.com

Pustules, like papules, occur when the walls of your pores break. The American Academy of Dermatology explains pustules are just like papules, except that they’re filled with a yellowish liquid, somewhat like a blister. Even though they have fluid in them, it’s not a good idea to try to pop them. You’ll likely end up with a painful mess to try to cover up. And, as with most kinds of acne, attempts to pop them are likely to result in scars and lasting hyperpigmentation.

Byrdie spoke to aesthetician Renee Rouleau and learned that pustules, in fact, are the most likely kind of acne to cause post-breakout red marks and dark scars if you don’t treat them properly.

How to treat them

Man moisturizing his face

Pustules can be carefully extracted, and then you can address the infection. | iStock.com

Rouleau tells Byrdie you shouldn’t touch pustules unless you see a whitehead. Then, if you’re extremely careful, you can extract the liquid, and them address the infection with a spot treatment that contains sulfur, zinc oxide, or camphor. Dermatologist Elizabeth Hale tells Glamour’s Lipstick that inflammatory acne responds well to antibiotics, either topical or systemic. So if you can see a dermatologist, those treatments may be a good option. If you can’t make it to the dermatologist, you can apply a hydrocortisone cream to reduce redness and swelling.

5. Cysts

Woman looking in the mirror

Cysts occur under the skin, and stay there until your body reabsorbs the infection. | iStock.com/chachamal

The most painful kinds of acne are cysts and nodules, which occur deep under the skin. Cysts feel somewhat soft, since they’re filled with pus. But they’re so deep under the skin that they can’t be safely drained or extracted. And realistically, they feel hard and painful, both when you press on them and even when you leave them alone. Your body will eventually reabsorb the infection, but cysts can stick around for weeks at a time.

How to treat them

beautiful woman doing makeup

An important part of treating cystic acne is keeping your hands off, and keeping your skin care and makeup routine as gentle as possible. | iStock.com/gpointstudio

The first step in treating cysts is to realize that you should never, ever pick at them. This kind of acne can’t be extracted through the surface of the skin, so you need to keep your hands off. Rouleau tells Byrdie that you should apply ice to a cyst in order to reduce swelling. And you may be able to find a spot treatment that can help without drying out the skin on top. If you’re able to get an appointment with your dermatologist on short notice, you can get a cortisone injection to cut the lifespan of the cyst dramatically.

6. Nodules

Woman washing her face on the sink

Nodules are another kind of acne that occurs deep in the skin. | iStock.com/ferlistockphoto

Nodules are like cysts, in that they’re deep under the skin. But unlike the former, nodules feel hard to the touch. The American Skin Association explains, “As lesions progress to become larger and more tender, they are termed nodules.” Nodules can occur when the hair follicle collapses. Unlike cysts, they don’t have pus in them. With cystic or nodular acne, it’s in your best interest to get to a dermatologist. Both types of acne are pretty difficult to treat on your own. And while one or two bumps might not be so bad, full-on cystic or nodular breakouts are best treated by professionals.

How to treat them

woman applying moisturizer on face

With both cysts and nodules, it’s a good idea to consult a dermatologist. | iStock.com/gpointstudio

Just like cysts, the first step in treating nodular acne is realizing that you should never, ever pick at them. For cystic and nodular acne, Paula Begoun recommends keeping your skin care routine as simple as possible, and using a gentle but effective cleanser twice a day. You should also exfoliate once or twice with a product that contains salicylic acid, and use benzoyl peroxide to kill the bacteria in your pores. But beyond those basic steps, you should consult a professional and consider options like photodynamic therapy, oral antibiotics, hormone therapy, and isotretinoin.