What are the 2 Most Common Types of Acne?


Acne is a skin condition that occurs when hair follicles become plugged with oil and dead skin cells. It causes whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, and bumps that can appear on the face, neck, chest, back, shoulders and upper arms. Acne is very common, affecting up to 50 million Americans annually. But not all acne is the same. There are different types of acne that tend to occur at different ages and parts of the body. Here we will explore the two most common forms of acne.

What are the 2 Most Common Types of Acne

The 2 Main Types of Acne

The two most widespread kinds of acne are:

Noninflammatory acne tends to manifest as whiteheads and blackheads. These types of pimples don’t exhibit reddening or swelling.

Inflammatory acne occurs when bacteria, sebum and dead skin cells clog the pores and start to become infected. This results in papules, pustules, nodules and cysts - which are red, inflamed lesions.

Below we’ll take a closer look at these two major categories of acne and the specific types of pimples they encompass.

Noninflammatory Acne

What is Noninflammatory Acne?

Noninflammatory acne is the mildest form of acne. It occurs when a pore becomes clogged with excess sebum and dead skin cells, forming a comedone. Noninflammatory acne consists of whiteheads and blackheads. These types of pimples don’t exhibit redness or swelling.

Noninflammatory acne tends to be more common in pre-pubescent children. It also frequently occurs as one ages and produces less sebum. Let’s examine whiteheads and blackheads in more detail:


Whiteheads, also known as closed comedones, arise when dead skin cells and sebum plug the opening of a hair follicle. This results in a small, flesh-colored bump. The top of a whitehead remains closed, which is why its contents of oil and debris remain white.

Whiteheads are one of the two main types of noninflammatory acne. They are usually painless although they can appear unsightly. Proper acne treatment can help clear up whiteheads quickly.


Blackheads, or open comedones, occur when the plugged hair follicle remains open to the air. The oil and debris are exposed to oxygen which causes them to turn black. For this reason, blackheads appear as tiny black dots on the skin’s surface.

Like whiteheads, blackheads are noninflammatory and typically don’t exhibit redness or swelling. They are unsightly but generally painless. Over-the-counter acne medications can help remove excess oil and exfoliate dead skin cells to clear out blackheads.

Now let’s switch gears and look at inflammatory acne...

Inflammatory Acne

Inflammatory acne appears red and swollen. It occurs when bacteria, oil and dead skin cells clog the pores and become infected and irritated. Inflammatory acne is considered more severe than noninflammatory acne. There are four main types of inflammatory acne lesions:

  • Papules
  • Pustules
  • Nodules
  • Cysts

Inflammatory acne is more likely to scar. Timely treatment is important to help heal breakouts and prevent scarring. Let’s look closer at the four types of inflammatory acne:


Papules are small, red, tender bumps that develop when the walls of pores become inflamed. The inflammation is caused by bacteria, oil and dead cells trapped within the pore.

Papules signal that the noninflammatory lesion (whitehead or blackhead) has become infected. Papules usually feel sensitive or sore to the touch. They are small, measuring less than 1⁄2 inch across.


Pustules, or pus-filled pimples, are red bumps topped with white or yellow pus. The pus consists of oil, bacteria, dead skin cells and white blood cells. Pustules form when the clogged, infected pore ruptures near the skin’s surface and spills out the contents.

Pustules are often mistaken for papules. But pustules contain visible pus at the tip while papules don’t. Like papules, pustules are tender and painful.


Nodules are large, solid, painful lumps beneath the surface of the skin. Unlike papules and pustules, nodules reside deep within the skin. They form when clogged pores rupture very deep in the dermis, causing inflammation.

Nodules signal a severe infection of the pore. The infection causes a buildup of pus and bacteria which collects into a painful node under the skin. Nodules can persist for weeks or months.


Cystic acne consists of fluid-filled lumps that occur when oil ducts become clogged and infected. Cysts reside below the surface of the skin and can feel like large, painful nodules.

However, cysts are pus-filled and often feel softer. When cysts rupture, they release the infected contents into nearby skin which can cause scarring. Cystic acne tends to affect the chin, jawline, back and chest.

So in summary, inflammatory acne consists of papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. These are more severe, painful lesions compared to noninflammatory whiteheads and blackheads. Prompt dermatological treatment is recommended for inflammatory acne to prevent scarring.

Acne Vulgaris - The Most Common Type Overall

Acne vulgaris, the medical name for common acne, is the most widespread type of acne overall. It is characterized by the presence of both noninflammatory (whiteheads, blackheads) and inflammatory lesions (papules, pustules, nodules, cysts).

This form of acne tends to start during puberty when androgen hormones stimulate sebum production. It typically appears on the face, back, chest and shoulders - areas with abundant oil glands. Acne vulgaris can range from mild to severe.

Key Takeaways

  • The two main categories of acne are noninflammatory and inflammatory.
  • Noninflammatory acne consists of whiteheads and blackheads. These types of pimples don’t exhibit redness or swelling.
  • Inflammatory acne appears red and swollen. It includes papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.
  • Acne vulgaris, the most common type overall, contains a mix of noninflammatory and inflammatory lesions. It frequently starts in the teen years.
  • Proper acne treatment can help manage both noninflammatory and inflammatory pimples. Seeking dermatological care is recommended for severe inflammatory acne to prevent scarring.

Treating and Preventing the Two Main Types of Acne

Now that we’ve covered the two major classifications of acne, let’s discuss how to treat and prevent them. Successfully managing acne relies on using the right products and lifestyle habits based on your specific skin type and breakouts. Here we’ll explore some tips for caring for both noninflammatory and inflammatory acne.

Caring for Noninflammatory Acne

Noninflammatory acne consists of whiteheads and blackheads. Here are some tips for keeping these mild, non-red pimples at bay:

Use over-the-counter acne medications. Look for acne products containing:

  • Salicylic acid - Clears dead skin cells and oil from pores
  • Benzoyl peroxide - Eliminates acne bacteria
  • Retinoids - Unclog pores and exfoliate

Gently exfoliate. Use soft facial scrubs and chemical exfoliators like alpha hydroxy acids to slough off dead skin. Don’t over-exfoliate which can worsen acne.

Shampoo regularly. Shampoo every-other day and after sweating to keep hair oils from transferring to your face.

Avoid touching your face. This prevents transferring dirt and bacteria from your hands to your face and making acne worse.

Shower after working out. Rinse off sweat right after a workout to keep pores clear.

Wash makeup brushes. Clean brushes regularly to avoid leaving behind makeup residue, dirt and bacteria.

Change your pillowcase. Sleep on a clean pillowcase nightly to avoid transferring oils back to your face.

Manage stress. High stress levels can exacerbate acne. Make time for relaxing self-care.

Eat a balanced diet. Focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables and anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish.

Treating Inflammatory Acne

Inflammatory acne like papules, pustules, nodules and cysts may requireprescription acne medications and professional treatment. Here are some tips:

See a dermatologist. For moderate to severe inflammatory acne, see a board certified dermatologist. They can prescribe stronger medications or provide professional treatments.

Take antibiotics. Antibiotics like clindamycin and erythromycin fight acne bacteria to reduce infection and inflammation. They are usually used topically or combined with other acne meds.

Use retinoids. Prescription retinoids like tretinoin help unclog pores, reduce oil and renew the skin. Retinoids help treat whiteheads, blackheads, papules and pustules.

Consider isotretinoin. For severe cystic acne, isotretinoin (Accutane) may be prescribed. This powerful oral retinoid combats oil production and treats stubborn nodules and cysts.

Get cortisone shots. Painful nodules and cysts can be treated with corticosteroid injections to rapidly reduce swelling and pain.

Try laser or light therapy. These professional treatments use lasers, blue light, red light or photodynamic therapy to kill acne bacteria and reduce inflammation.

Avoid picking/popping. Picking and popping pimples can worsen swelling, lead to scarring and spread bacteria. Keep your hands off pimples.

Use topical antibiotics. Prescription antibiotic gels like clindamycin applied twice daily help control inflammatory acne bacteria.

Take oral antibiotics. For moderate to severe inflammatory acne, oral antibiotics may be prescribed for 2-6 months to control infection and reduce outbreaks systemically.

Gently cleanse skin. Use a non-abrasive, fragrance-free cleanser twice daily. Avoid scrubbing or using harsh soaps which can worsen irritation.

Prevention is Key

While some acne may be inevitable depending on your age and hormones, there are preventive steps you can take to avoid excessive breakouts. Here are some tips:

  • Maintain a consistent skin care routine using products tailored for your specific acne type.
  • Avoid excessive touching, picking and popping of pimples.
  • Rinse skin after sweating and use oil-absorbing products if needed.
  • Eat a wholesome diet lower in refined carbs and sugar.
  • Manage stress levels through exercise, meditation, yoga, therapy, etc.
  • Change pillowcases and masks regularly.
  • See a dermatologist at the first signs of moderate to severe inflammatory acne.

When to See a Dermatologist

You may want to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist if you experience:

  • Severe inflammatory acne (nodules, cysts)
  • Acne that is not improving with over-the-counter products
  • Acne leaving dark spots or scars
  • Deep painful pimples
  • Sudden adult-onset acne

A dermatologist can examine your skin, determine your acne type, and create a customized treatment plan to successfully clear up your breakouts.

The Bottom Line

There are two main classifications of acne:

Noninflammatory (whiteheads and blackheads)

Inflammatory (papules, pustules, nodules and cysts)

Knowing your specific acne type guides the right treatment approach. Mild noninflammatory acne often responds well to over-the-counter products. More severe inflammatory acne usually requires prescription medications or procedures.

Seeing a dermatologist offers the best solution for moderate to severe acne that is leading to scarring or not improving with basic drugstore products. With professional guidance and consistently using the right acne treatments for your skin, you can successfully manage both noninflammatory and inflammatory acne.

Frequently Asked Questions on the 2 Most Common Types of Acne

Acne is a prevalent skin condition that affects millions of teens and adults. Not all acne is the same. There are two major classifications of acne: noninflammatory and inflammatory. Understanding the differences between these two types is key for properly treating and preventing breakouts. Below we answer some common questions about the two main categories of acne.

Noninflammatory Acne

What is noninflammatory acne?

Noninflammatory acne is characterized by whiteheads and blackheads. These types of pimples don’t exhibit redness or swelling. Whiteheads are closed comedones that remain under the skin with a whitish appearance. Blackheads are open comedones that turn dark when exposed to air.

What causes noninflammatory acne?

Noninflammatory acne arises when a pore becomes clogged with excess oil, dead skin cells and debris. This forms a plug that blocks the follicle. Noninflammatory acne is usually caused by hormonal changes, genetics, oil production, skin cell buildup and bacterial growth.

Who gets noninflammatory acne?

Noninflammatory acne frequently occurs in adolescents and younger children when hormones start stimulating oil production. It also commonly affects adults later in life as hormone levels decline. Excess oil and dead skin cell buildup leads to clogged pores and whiteheads/blackheads.

How do you treat noninflammatory acne?

Mild noninflammatory acne often responds well to over-the-counter acne medications containing ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids. Gently exfoliating and using oil-absorbing products can also help prevent clogged pores. Lifestyle factors like managing stress levels, eating healthy and changing pillowcases also support clear skin.

How can you prevent noninflammatory acne?

To help prevent noninflammatory acne, maintain a consistent skincare routine using products tailored for your skin type. Gently exfoliate skin to slough off dead cells and keep pores clear. Use oil-absorbing ingredients if needed. Avoid excessive face touching and wash makeup tools regularly. Manage stress, exercise and eat a balanced, low-glycemic diet.

Inflammatory Acne

What is inflammatory acne?

Inflammatory acne appears as red, tender bumps including papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. It occurs when bacteria, oil and dead cells become trapped in clogged pores and lead to infection and inflammation. Inflammatory pimples can be painful and lead to scarring if not properly treated.

What causes inflammatory acne?

Inflammatory acne arises when trapped oils, dead skin and bacteria inside a clogged follicle become infected and swollen. This leads to painful papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. The main causes are hormonal changes, excess oil production, buildup of dead skin cells, bacterial growth and inflammation.

Who gets inflammatory acne?

Inflammatory acne most often occurs in teenagers and adults experiencing hormonal fluctuations. It is more common during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and perimenopause when hormones are in flux. Inflammatory acne also frequently arises in adults with oily skin or those with chronic acne.

How do you treat inflammatory acne?

For moderate to severe inflammatory acne, seeing a dermatologist is recommended. They can prescribe stronger topical or oral medications like retinoids, antibiotics or isotretinoin. Professional procedures like photodynamic therapy, cortisone injections or laser treatments may be warranted for deep cysts and nodules.

How can you prevent inflammatory acne?

Preventing inflammatory acne involves maintaining a consistent skincare routine with acne-fighting ingredients. Avoid picking and popping pimples which worsens infection. Rinse after sweating, change pillowcases regularly, manage stress and avoid dietary triggers. See a dermatologist at the first signs of cystic acne for professional treatment.

When to See a Dermatologist

  • You have painful, red nodules or large cysts
  • Over-the-counter products are not improving your acne
  • Your acne is leaving dark spots or scars
  • You experience sudden severe adult acne
  • Your acne is impacting your self-esteem

Seeing a dermatologist can help diagnose your acne type and create a tailored treatment plan. Proper acne treatment prevents scarring and keeps skin clear long-term.

Key Takeaways

  • There are 2 main types of acne: noninflammatory and inflammatory
  • Noninflammatory acne consists of whiteheads and blackheads with no redness
  • Inflammatory acne appears as red, tender papules, pustules, cysts and nodules
  • Mild noninflammatory acne often responds to over-the-counter treatments
  • Moderate to severe inflammatory acne usually requires seeing a dermatologist
  • Understanding your acne type guides the right treatment approach for clear skin

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