How can I tell what kind of acne I have?


Dealing with acne can be frustrating. Before you can treat it effectively, you need to identify what type of acne you have. There are several different categories and types of acne, each with their own characteristics. Being able to recognize the different types is key to understanding the best treatments.

Acne falls into two main categories: non-inflammatory acne and inflammatory acne. Non-inflammatory acne tends to be milder, while inflammatory acne is more severe. Let’s break down the different types so you can pinpoint yours.

How can I tell what kind of acne I have

Non-Inflammatory Acne

Non-inflammatory acne is generally characterized by whiteheads, blackheads, and small pimples. There is little to no redness associated with these blemishes. Here are the types of non-inflammatory acne:


Whiteheads occur when dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria become trapped within a clogged pore. The pore remains closed, so the debris cannot escape. This results in a small white bump. The color comes from the trapped dead skin cells and oil, not pus as some believe.

You’ll notice whiteheads on the face, typically the forehead, chin, and cheeks. They also often occur on the back, chest, neck, shoulders and arms. Whiteheads are very common in acne-prone skin.


Blackheads also begin as blocked pores. But instead of remaining closed, the pore opens up and exposes the trapped debris to air. This causes the debris to oxidize, turning black. That’s how the black color develops.

Blackheads are also called open comedones. They look like tiny black dots scattered across the skin's surface. You’ll often find them on the face, especially the nose and chin area. But they can occur anywhere on the body, including the back, chest, and shoulders.

Small Pimples

These are flesh-colored small bumps that develop when oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria get trapped in pores. Papules occur when the walls surrounding the pores break down from severe inflammation. This allows the debris to spill out into the surrounding skin.

Papules are tender, small pink or red bumps that may feel sore. They are considered mild non-inflammatory acne, but can develop into more inflamed pimples if not properly treated. You’ll notice papules scattered across acne-prone areas like the face, as well as the chest, back, and sometimes arms.

Inflammatory Acne

Inflammatory acne consists of painful, reddened blemishes. It occurs when bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells get trapped deep inside hair follicles. This triggers the immune system, causing inflammation. Here are the different types of inflammatory acne:


Pustules, or pimples, happen when trapped debris causes white blood cells to rush to the site of a clogged pore. These white blood cells produce pus, which fills up the pore.

With pustules, you’ll notice a raised, white bump surrounded by pink or redness. The white tip is the pus, not dead skin cells like with whiteheads. Pustules are often tender to the touch and can be quite painful. You’ll see them scattered across the face, chest, back, shoulders and arms.


Nodules form when the walls around clogged pores break down deep within the skin, causing infections. Hard, large lumps develop under the skin’s surface.

Nodules are large, solid lesions that can be felt beneath the skin’s surface. Unlike pustules, nodules do not contain pus since they remain lodged deep in the skin. They are hard to the touch and very painful.

Nodules indicate severe inflammation and can result in scarring if not properly treated. They often occur on the face, chest, back, and sometimes arms.

Cystic Acne

Cystic acne is an extreme form of inflammatory acne. It happens when infections become trapped very deep in the skin, forming painful cysts beneath the surface.

Cystic blemishes are large, red, swollen breakouts that feel tender to the touch and may be sore. Cysts can develop when pores become very clogged and infections get trapped far below the skin.

Cystic acne is most common on the face, chest, neck, back and shoulders. Cysts often lead to scarring, so prompt treatment is important. They indicate your acne is progressing to a severe state.

How to Identify Your Type of Acne

Now that you know the main types, here are some tips for identifying your specific acne:

  • Examine your breakouts closely in the mirror. Look at the characteristics of your individual blemishes - are they flesh-toned, white, black, small or large? This can indicate whether you have non-inflammatory or inflammatory acne.
  • Take note of how many whiteheads/blackheads versus pustules or nodules you have. The more inflammatory lesions you have, the more severe your acne is considered.
  • Pay attention to how much redness and swelling you see around your blemishes. If they are highly reddened and sore, your acne is likely inflammatory.
  • Feel your breakouts - cystic acne can be identified by large, tender lumps under the skin.
  • Consider where you primarily break out. Different types often occur in different locations.
  • Take note of any scarring that is occurring. Nodular and cystic acne can lead to scars.
  • Track your breakouts over time. inflammatory acne tends to be persistent, while non-inflammatory is more sporadic.
  • See a dermatologist if you are unsure. They can properly diagnose your type of acne by looking at your skin.

Being familiar with the unique characteristics of different acne types is key to targeting your treatment correctly. Pay close attention to your breakouts so you can determine what category yours falls under. This will allow you to find the right solutions to clear it up.

Common Causes of Different Acne Types

Acne forms for a variety of reasons. Understanding what’s causing your specific type can help you treat the root issue for clearer skin. Here are some of the most common culprits behind different acne types:

Causes of Non-Inflammatory Acne

  • Excess oil production - This causes dead skin and debris to stick together and clog pores. It’s a major contributor to whiteheads and blackheads.
  • Accumulation of dead skin cells - Dead cells can clump together and get trapped in pores, leading to clogs.
  • Hormones - Hormone fluctuations, especially in teenagers and women, increase oil production and dead skin cell buildup.
  • Genetics - Some people are genetically prone to producing more oil and accumulating more dead skin cells.
  • Skincare products - Heavy creams, oils, and thick makeup can clog pores and cause whiteheads and blackheads.

Causes of Inflammatory Acne

  • Hormones - When androgen hormones rise, especially during puberty and menstruation, the sebaceous glands produce more oil. This causes inflamed breakouts.
  • Bacteria - A bacteria known as p. acnes proliferates in clogged follicles, leading to infections, redness, and swelling.
  • Family history - Those with a family history of inflammatory acne are more prone to experiencing it.
  • Stress - High stress levels trigger inflammation in the body, which can worsen inflammatory acne.
  • Harsh skincare - Scrubs, astringents, and fragrances in products can irritate skin and provoke inflammatory lesions.

Lifestyle Tips to Prevent Acne Breakouts

Making adjustments to your daily habits can help keep acne at bay:

  • Cleanse skin daily - Use a gentle cleanser morning and evening to remove excess oil, dead skin, makeup, and other debris that clogs pores.
  • Avoid touching your face - This transfers dirt and bacteria onto the skin, which can get into pores and cause blemishes.
  • Shower after exercising - Sweat leaves salt and oils on the skin, promoting breakouts. Also avoid wearing tight helmets and hats that trap sweat on the skin.
  • Change your pillowcase frequently - Oil, dirt, and bacteria can build up on your pillowcase and transfer back to your skin each night, blocking pores.
  • Manage stress levels - Lower stress to reduce inflammation that makes inflammatory acne worse. Try relaxing activities like meditation, yoga, journaling, or deep breathing.

Making some simple lifestyle adjustments can keep your skin cleaner and your pores clearer, preventing acne in the process.

When to See a Dermatologist for Acne Treatment

If you’ve tried over-the-counter acne remedies without improvement, it’s a sign you may need prescribed treatment from a dermatologist. Here are some signs it’s time to make an appointment:

  • Your acne is starting to scar your skin
  • You frequently get painful cysts or nodules
  • Your acne is causing emotional distress or low self-esteem
  • Your breakouts are worsening or not getting better
  • You’ve used OTC products for several months with no results

A dermatologist can properly diagnose your acne type, identify the causes, and create a customized treatment plan. Prescription-strength acne medications are likely needed at this point for adequate treatment.

Seeing a dermatologist sooner rather than later prevents permanent acne scarring and long-term damage to your skin. Don’t hesitate to book an appointment if your acne is not improving or is getting worse over time.

Key Takeaways

  • Identifying your specific type of acne is crucial for finding the right treatment method. Look closely at your breakouts to determine if you have non-inflammatory or inflammatory acne.
  • Non-inflammatory acne consists of whiteheads, blackheads and small pimples with little redness. Inflammatory acne involves painful, red lesions like pustules, nodules and cysts.
  • Understanding what’s causing your acne type, whether it’s hormones, genetics or other factors, can help you target the root of the problem.
  • Make simple lifestyle changes like washing your face daily, reducing stress, and changing pillowcases frequently to prevent acne from forming.
  • See a dermatologist promptly if your acne is not improving with OTC remedies, to prevent permanent damage and scarring.

Getting familiar with your unique acne situation is the critical first step to clearing it up for good. Pay close attention to your specific breakout patterns and symptoms so you can find solutions that work best for your skin. With the right treatment plan in place, you can finally achieve your acne-free skin goals.

Frequently Asked Questions About Identifying Your Type of Acne

What are the main categories of acne?

The two main categories of acne are non-inflammatory and inflammatory. Non-inflammatory acne includes milder forms like whiteheads, blackheads and small pimples. Inflammatory acne involves more painful, red blemishes including pustules, nodules and cysts.

What does non-inflammatory acne look like?

Non-inflammatory acne consists of whiteheads, blackheads and small pink pimples or papules. These types of blemishes are generally flesh-toned with minimal redness. They also tend to be small, ranging from pinhead size to a few millimeters wide.

What are characteristics of inflammatory acne?

Inflammatory acne consists of red, swollen pimples that can be sore and tender. This includes pustules surrounded by redness, large tender nodules under the skin, and red, painful cysts. Inflammatory lesions tend to be more persistent and lead to potential scarring if not treated properly.

How can I tell if I have non-inflammatory or inflammatory acne?

Check the color of your blemishes - non-inflammatory lesions tend to be skin-toned while inflammatory pimples appear red. Also, take note of pain and tenderness. Milder forms are not usually painful whereas inflammatory pimples can hurt. Examine the size too - non-inflammatory bumps stay small as inflammatory acne can get much bigger.

What's the difference between whiteheads and blackheads?

Whiteheads are closed comedones - the pore is completely blocked. Blackheads are open comedones - the pore is only partially blocked and opens at the surface. Whiteheads are white in color while blackheads appear darker on the surface. Both are common types of non-inflammatory acne.

How do you get rid of non-inflammatory acne?

Non-inflammatory acne usually responds well to over-the-counter acne products containing ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Gentle cleansing twice daily plus spot treatments can help clear up mild comedonal acne and prevent new breakouts.

What causes inflammatory acne?

Several factors contribute to inflammatory acne, including hormones, genetics, bacteria, stress, and irritation from harsh skincare products. These triggers result in swelling, redness and potential scarring that characterizes inflammatory lesions. Oily skin types are also more prone to developing inflammatory acne.

How do dermatologists treat inflammatory acne?

For moderate to severe inflammatory acne, dermatologists often prescribe topical or oral antibiotics to treat bacterial overgrowth and reduce inflammation. Retinoids are also commonly used to unplug clogged pores and prevent new breakouts. Other options include anti-inflammatory creams, birth control pills, isotretinoin, and laser or light therapies.

When should I consider seeing a dermatologist for acne?

See a dermatologist promptly if you have painful cysts or nodules, worsening acne that causes scarring, or acne that has not responded to over-the-counter treatments after several months. A dermatologist can help get inflammatory acne under control before permanent damage occurs.

What lifestyle changes can help prevent acne?

Gentle skin care, avoiding touching your face, managing stress, frequently washing bedding, and showering after workouts can help minimize acne breakouts. Keeping skin clean and reducing inflammation are key to preventing inflammatory and non-inflammatory pimples.

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