When it comes to pimples, you might think that they’re all pretty much the same…right? Any breakout is just a breakout, isn't it? Well, when it really comes down to the core of it, there are actually a lot of different types of breakouts out there - and knowing the difference between them is critical when it comes to tackling them.
Some types can’t be easily treated at home and require professional medical attention, while some aren’t even true acne at all! There are multiple different things that all fall into the acne/breakout category - this blog post will demystify blackheads from whiteheads and pustules from papules.
If you already have a good idea of what kind of acne you have and you just want the shortcut to clearing it, here's a quick table of contents:
- What Is Inflammatory Acne?
What Are the Two Categories of Acne?
Classifying breakouts starts with understanding the two categories acne can fall under - Inflammatory Acne, and Non-Inflammatory Acne. Pimples can actually change from the two (from non-inflammatory to inflammatory) which is why treating the non-inflammatory kind can actually prevent inflamed acne from popping up (pun intended) in the first place! Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what each type of breakout is.
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What is Non-Inflammatory Acne
Non-inflammatory acne describes breakouts that don’t necessarily have redness, itching, or even pus - I know, it’s a bit gross but it’s an important distinction to make. Knowing the difference between the two types of acne is crucial when it comes to effectively addressing these concerns and clearing breakouts from your skin.
Non-inflamed acne is also called comedones, which is the scientific way to describe a blocked pore. Pores usually become blocked when there’s too much dead skin, and combined with excess facial oils, this dead skin can harden into a pore-blocking sebum plug.
Non-inflammatory acne includes two types of breakouts that you’ve probably already heard of - blackheads and whiteheads.
What are Blackheads?
Blackheads are an accumulation of sebum, dead skin cells and other debris that block a pore, creating a hard plug with an open top. The reason they turn black is because of the top layer of sebum oxidising with the air, creating that signature darkened appearance.
They can pop up anywhere on your face and skin where you tend to be oilier, like your forehead, chest, and even your back - but blackheads aren’t necessarily limited to those areas, either! I know what you’re thinking now, though - how do I get rid of those stubborn blackheads on my nose?
The reality is that you can’t - and that’s because they’re not actually blackheads, they’re sebaceous filaments.
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Blackheads vs. Sebaceous Filaments
The reason that it's so hard to get rid of them is that they’re a completely natural part of your skin. They’re pores that naturally fill and secret sebum - and they work harder at this than the other pores on your face, which is why if you have oily skin, you’ll find that your t-zone is where you tend to feel the shiniest.
The thing is, producing sebum makes these pores look larger and darker than they really are, which makes many people turn to harsh pore strips to yank these ‘blackheads’ out of your skin. If this is something you do, you need to stop ASAP! Pore strips are quite harsh on your delicate facial skin and can cause larger-looking pores and chronic redness if overused.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to minimise the appearance of sebaceous filaments - luckily enough, the same products and techniques for non-inflammatory acne work for sebaceous filaments, too!
What are Whiteheads?
Contrary to popular belief, whiteheads aren’t those pimples that look ready to pop (but we’ll get onto what those are in a minute). Whiteheads are actually exactly the same as blackheads - a hardened plug of sebum, dead skin cells and any other tiny debris that’s blocking your pore.
The difference is there’s a layer of skin over the top. A bit of an icky distinction, but it’s important to know - this is what prevents whiteheads from turning dark like blackheads, even though they’re the same thing. They’re also called closed comedones (in contrast to open comedones, like blackheads).
However, it’s also what makes whiteheads more likely to turn into inflamed acne - specifically, papules and pustules. If any C Acnes bacteria enter the pore and start feeding on that sebum plug, it kick-starts the cycle to turn the whitehead into a papule or pustule.
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How to Clear Non-Inflammatory Acne
So what’s the main way to address this type of acne? How exactly should you get rid of blackheads? Well, the number one has to be with exfoliation, especially with skincare products that contain Salicylic Acid. Salicylic Acid and other exfoliating acids slough away excess dead skin cells, preventing them from blocking pores and can even help to balance sebum levels.
Another tip for effectively clearing pores is using the double cleansing method with a cleansing oil - it sounds counter-intuitive, but here’s how it works. The oil cleanser helps to dissolve any excess sebum (remember year 10 chemistry?) because like dissolves like - in this case, oil dissolves oil. It’s an effective and gentle way to ensure your pores are left clean and clear for flawless skin!
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What is Inflammatory Acne?
Inflammatory acne occurs when there’s one more factor involved in breakouts - bacteria, specifically C Acnes bacteria. These bacteria feed on sebum and can quickly cause inflammation in pores, leading to pesky, inflamed breakouts.
It’s also important to note that Inflammatory acne is the kind of breakout that usually results in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, aka the dark spots that appear after acne has come and gone. There are 4 main kinds of inflammatory acne - papules, pustules, cysts, and nodular acne.
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What Are Papules?
Papules are inflamed acne that’s close to the skin’s surface but doesn’t have a visible head. They look like a red, angry bump on your skin. They usually start as a blocked pore, like a blackhead or whitehead, but have become host to inflammatory C Acnes bacteria.
They’re the kind of breakouts that are hard to pop - not that you should be popping them, anyway! Papules sometimes turn into pustules, their closely related cousin, but they can also resolve without ever coming to a head.
What are Pustules?
So, it’s these that are the actual breakouts that most people think of - especially when you think of a pimple that’s about to pop. They’re described as ‘inflamed lesions’ and I consider that pretty accurate - they usually have a pus-filled head ringed with inflamed skin, and might even stick out a little bit from the skin.
Like papules, pustules can appear in clusters of acne on the skin - and you can even have pustules and papules at the same time.
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What is Nodular Acne?
Nodular acne appears as large firm bumps under the skin that never seem to come to a head and they don’t contain pus, unlike cysts. They’re actually a hard, inflamed lesion under the skin, and their combined depth and severity means that topical treatments tend to have very little effect on them. Deeper inflamed acne like this is linked to textured acne scarring.
What is Cystic Acne?
Most people have had at least one cyst before and can attest to just how uncomfortable these suckers are. They’re deep and inflamed and tend to be full of pus (unlike deep nodules). Other uncomfortable symptoms of cysts include itching, swelling, and tenderness all deep under your skin.
Cysts can also form due to hormones, and if you’re a woman, it’s not uncommon to have a cyst or two pop up during your monthly cycle. Like nodular acne, cysts are pretty hard to truly treat from the surface with topical skin treatments.
How to Clear Inflammatory Acne
Clearing inflammatory acne starts with clearing non-inflammatory acne, at least in the case of papules and pustules. Clearing these clogged pores before they have a chance to turn into full own inflamed breakouts goes a long way when it comes to getting breakout-free skin, however, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do to inflamed acne.
Antibacterial skincare ingredients are worth their weight in gold, zapping C Acnes bacteria for clearer, cleaner skin. Spot treatments with Sulphur and Salicylic Acid are super effective at banishing acne-causing bacteria and reducing inflammation, clearing breakouts with a few days of consistent use.
Another option for spot treating is blue light therapy - this wavelength of light works double duty to reduce inflammation and eliminate bacteria for clear skin. However, it’s important to note that these over-the-counter methods may not be as effective at clearing nodular and cystic acne - professional medical attention and prescription retinoids are probably your best bet here!
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Now that you know all the different kinds of breakouts, you’re on your way to getting your beauty affairs in order - with clearer, radiant skin!
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