What is the Difference Between Pimples and Acne?


Have you ever wondered what the difference is between pimples and acne? Most people use these terms interchangeably, but there are some key differences.

What is the Difference Between Pimples and Acne

In this article, we’ll explore what pimples and acne are, what causes them, and how to treat them effectively. We’ll also look at the differences between pimples and acne so you can better understand what’s going on with your skin.

What Are Pimples?

Pimples are small skin lesions or inflammations that develop when oil and dead skin cells clog up a pore. The technical term for pimples is comedones.

When a pore becomes clogged, it traps bacteria inside. Your body sends white blood cells to the infected area to fight off the bacteria. This causes the pore to become inflamed and turn red. Pus builds up inside the pore, filling it with white or yellow fluid. This results in a whitehead or blackhead forming on the surface.

Pimples most often pop up on the face, back, chest, neck, and shoulders. These are areas with a high number of oil glands. They can range in size from small bumps to large, painful zits.

Some common types of pimples include:

  • Whiteheads - These remain under the skin with a small white dot at the surface.
  • Blackheads - These are open comedones that appear black on the surface due to accumulated skin pigment called melanin.
  • Papules - Small red bumps that feel tender or sore.
  • Pustules - Pimples containing visible pus.
  • Nodules - Large, solid pimples embedded deep in the skin.
  • Cysts - Deep, painful pimples filled with pus.

Pimples are very common, especially among teenagers. Around 85% of people between the ages of 12 and 24 experience minor pimple breakouts. These are caused by hormonal changes associated with puberty.

Pimples can be painful and annoying. But they go away quickly, usually healing within a few days. Just one or two pimples at a time is not considered acne.

What Is Acne?

Acne is a long-term skin condition characterized by areas of blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, greasy skin, and possibly scarring. There are several types of acne:

  • Acne vulgaris - The most common form, includes whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts.
  • Acne rosacea - Pimples and redness, often in middle-aged women.
  • Acne cosmetica - Caused by makeup, skin care products, and greasy substances that clog pores.
  • Acne mechanica - Caused by friction, pressure, heat, and sweat. Common in athletes.
  • Acne fulminans - Sudden severe cystic acne with ulceration and crusting.

Unlike occasional breakouts, acne is a chronic condition that occurs across large areas of the face and body. It most often affects the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck.

Acne typically consists of the following characteristics:

  • Blackheads and whiteheads covering large areas.
  • Small and large inflamed red lesions.
  • Pus-filled pimples and deeper lumps under the skin.
  • Oily and greasy skin.
  • Possible scarring after lesions heal.
  • Flare ups that can last weeks or months.

Teenage acne usually starts at puberty and can last into the 20s and 30s. Adult acne is also common, occurring in women twice as often as men. Hormonal changes like pregnancy and menopause can trigger acne later in life.

Let’s explore what causes pimples versus acne next.

What Causes Pimples vs Acne?

Acne and pimples have somewhat similar causes related to clogged pores, bacteria, and inflammation. But some key differences can make pimples a minor annoyance versus chronic acne:

Clogged Pores

Dead skin cells and excess oil (sebum) made by oil glands can clog up pores in the skin. This provides a breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria. Clogged pores alone don't cause major acne though. People with acne have an overabundance of a sticky form of sebum that adheres to pore walls and accumulates dirt and cells inside pores.


Acne is often caused by an overgrowth of the bacteria Cutibacterium acnes. These bacteria thrive on the excess sebum and dead cells inside clogged follicles. The bacteria grow and multiply, causing inflammation. Pimples can result from minor bacterial growth in individual blocked pores.


Bacterial colonization triggers the body’s immune response. Your white blood cells attack the infection, leading to inflammation, swelling, redness, and pus. Sometimes the walls of the plugged follicle break down, spreading the acne deeper into the skin. Acne consists of many inflamed lesions, while a few minor pimples are less problematic.

Hormonal Fluctuations

Hormone changes during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause can increase sebum production and kickstart acne. Androgens like testosterone cause the oil glands and hair follicles to grow larger. This increases the amount of sebum production and chances for clogging. Just a small amount of hormonal pimples is normal. Chronic acne flareups often result from significant hormonal imbalances.


Some people are born with more sensitive oil glands that are easily triggered into producing too much sebum. A family history of acne often predicts chronic acne starting in the preteen years. An occasional pimple can happen to anyone though.


Stress doesn’t directly cause acne, but it can worsen acne by increasing inflammation. Stress also stimulates oil gland secretion and spikes androgen levels. This can lead to more frequent or more severe acne breakouts. Mild stress sometimes triggers a pimple or two.

While pimples and acne share similar causes, acne is linked to hormonal fluctuations, chronic inflammation, and excess sebum production. Just a clogged pore or two can lead to a few pimples. Acne is a more complex condition requiring long-term treatment.

How Are Pimples Different From Acne?

Now that we’ve explored the causes behind breakouts, let’s summarize the key differences between getting an occasional pimple versus chronic acne:

  • Occurrence - Pimples sporadically pop up from time to time. Acne is an ongoing condition with frequent flare-ups.
  • Quantity - Just one or two pimples appear at a time. Acne consists of many pimples across large areas.
  • Severity - Pimples are small with minor swelling. Acne includes deep, painful cysts under the skin.
  • Duration - Individual pimples last a few days then heal. Acne is a persistent condition lasting weeks, months, or longer.
  • Scarring - Pimples don’t often scar unless picked at. Acne can lead to permanent pitted scarring.
  • Treatment - Pimples often resolve without treatment. Acne requires long-term medication.
  • Cause - Pimples can be triggered by random clogged pores and stress. Acne has deeper hormonal and genetic causes.
  • Location - Pimples can pop up anywhere but are usually isolated. Acne most often affects the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck.
  • Age - Pimples affect all ages when oil and dead cells clog pores. Acne most often starts in the teens.

As you can see, acne is more severe, widespread, and chronic compared to occasional pimple breakouts. Knowing how to spot the difference is key to successful treatment.

How Are Pimples and Acne Treated?

Treating pimples is fairly simple and short-term. Healing acne requires a multi-step skincare routine and consistent use of medications. Here is an overview of how to treat pimples versus acne:

Treating Pimples

Here are some tips for getting rid of pimples:

  • Avoid picking and popping pimples to prevent infections and scarring.
  • Use a spot treatment containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or sulfur to dry out pimples.
  • Dab some hydrocortisone cream on inflamed pimples to reduce redness and swelling.
  • Apply a healing ointment like Vaseline to soften skin and draw out pus.
  • Take a hot shower or use a warm compress to open up pores and dissolve oils and dirt.
  • Exfoliate dead skin cells and debris from pores using a gentle scrub with soft microbeads.
  • Shampoo regularly and avoid letting hair products touch the face to prevent clogged pores.
  • Drink lots of water and eat a healthy diet rich in antioxidants.

With a little TLC, individual pimples should clear up within a few days to a week. See a dermatologist promptly if you have a severe, painful pustule or cyst that does not improve.

Treating Acne

Successfully managing acne requires a multi-pronged approach including:

  • OTC cleansers - Use acne face washes containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
  • Prescription topicals - Apply retinoids like tretinoin or antibiotics like clindamycin to kill bacteria.
  • Oral antibiotics - Take pills like doxycycline or minocycline to reduce inflammation.
  • Hormonal agents - For women, birth control pills or spironolactone can regulate androgen levels.
  • Isotretinoin - For severe cystic acne, this strong vitamin A derivative is highly effective.

Along with medications, those with acne should also follow a regular skin care regimen:

  • Cleanse gently twice a day and avoid scrubbing.
  • Use non-comedogenic moisturizers and sunscreen.
  • Shampoo regularly and change pillowcases frequently.
  • Avoid oil-based makeup and hair products.
  • Drink lots of water, eat anti-inflammatory foods, exercise, and reduce stress.
  • See a dermatologist for laser treatments and steroid injections to treat scarring.

Consistency and patience is key - it can take 2-3 months for acne medications to take full effect. Severe acne can take many months to clear and may require ongoing maintenance with topical retinoids.

When to See a Dermatologist

Seeing a skin doctor is advisable in these circumstances:

  • You’re experiencing large, painful, cystic acne lesions.
  • Your acne is leaving dark marks or pitted scars.
  • Over-the-counter products haven’t improved your acne after 2 months.
  • You get recurring pimples in the same areas.
  • Acne is causing major emotional distress or low self-esteem.

A dermatologist can assess your acne, test for underlying causes, and provide advanced prescription treatments to effectively clear and prevent acne.

Takeaway: Pimples vs Acne

Acne and pimples have some overlapping causes, but there are distinct differences between getting an occasional pimple and having chronic acne:

  • Pimples are sporadic and short-lived. Acne causes frequent flare-ups over weeks or months.
  • Just one or two minor pimples appear at a time. Acne consists of many inflamed lesions across large facial areas.
  • Pimples are small and heal quickly with simple care. Acne often causes painful cysts and may permanently scar.
  • Pimples can happen to anyone but go away fast. Acne typically begins in the teens and follows a chronic relapsing course.
  • Acne has deeper hormonal triggers like puberty, periods, and stress. Pimples can occur randomly from clogged pores.
  • Pimples often resolve without treatment. Acne requires following a long-term skin care regimen.
  • While pimples are no fun, acne can take a significant physical and emotional toll over time.

Knowing how to distinguish between temporary pimples and lasting acne is the first step in getting clearer skin. See a dermatologist promptly if you are experiencing red, inflamed breakouts across large facial areas. With professional treatment, you can successfully manage acne and avoid scarring.

Frequently Asked Questions on Pimples vs. Acne

What is the difference between a pimple and acne?

  • Pimples are small, localized skin inflammations that occur when a pore becomes clogged with oil and dead skin cells. One or two pimples at a time is considered normal. Acne is a chronic inflammatory skin condition characterized by multiple pimples as well as nodules, cysts, and scarring.

What causes pimples?

  • Pimples form when a pore gets blocked by excess oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. Hormonal changes, genetics, excess oil production, hair/skin products, and squeezing pimples can contribute to clogged pores and pimples. They are common during puberty. Stress and diet may play a minor role.

What causes acne?

  • Like pimples, acne starts with a clogged pore. However, acne sufferers produce excess sebum, have stickier sebum that plugs pores, increased hormone levels, and colonization of pores with Cutibacterium acnes bacteria. Genetics, hormone changes, and inflammation drive acne.

Who gets pimples vs. acne?

  • Pimples can occur in anyone when a pore clogs. Acne most often begins in the teens and early 20s due to hormonal changes, and lasts into the 30s and 40s in some cases. Women are more susceptible to adult acne due to hormonal fluctuations related to menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.

Where do pimples and acne appear?

  • Pimples can form anywhere on the skin but are most common on the face, back, chest, and shoulders. Acne develops predominantly on the face, back, chest, and shoulders. Acne can also occur on the neck, scalp, and buttocks.

What do pimples look like vs. acne?

  • Pimples are small red, white or black bumps that are mildly inflamed and tender. Acne includes blackheads, whiteheads, small and large inflamed papules and pustules, painful nodules under the skin, and severe cysts.

How long do pimples last compared to acne?

  • A pimple usually resolves on its own within a few days to a week. Acne is an ongoing condition with flare-ups that last weeks or months. Acne can persist for years and even into adulthood without proper treatment.

Does acne scarring occur with pimples?

  • Pimples do not typically result in scarring unless they are severely inflamed or picked/popped. Acne often leaves permanent pigmentation and pitted scars due to the depth of lesions and recurring inflammation.

How are pimples and acne treated differently?

  • Pimples can often be treated at home with over-the-counter spot treatments and warm compresses. Acne requires seeing a dermatologist for prescription topical or oral antibiotics, retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sometimes isotretinoin for severe cases.

When should someone see a dermatologist?

See a dermatologist if you have painful, cystic acne, acne that causes scarring or dark spots, acne that doesn’t improve with over-the-counter products, or you experience psychological distress from acne. A dermatologist can provide medical therapy for persistent acne.

What’s the best way to prevent pimples and acne?

  • To help prevent acne, wash with a gentle cleanser twice a day, use oil-free moisturizers and makeup, avoid frequent skin picking and squeezing, shampoo regularly, change pillowcases frequently, avoid skin irritants, drink plenty of water, and eat a healthy diet.

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