Acne types in pictures: Explanations and treatments

Most minor acne blemishes respond to at-home care and over-the-counter medications. However, people with severe or long-term acne should speak with a doctor or dermatologist.

Acne affects around 80 percent of adolescents and young adults. About 40–50 million Americans have acne at any given time.

The following are common types of blemish associated with acne:

  • whiteheads
  • blackheads
  • pustules, which are commonly called pimples
  • papules
  • cysts
  • nodules

Each type of acne lesion requires a different treatment. Receiving prompt, correct treatment can reduce the risk of long-term skin complications, such as dark spots and scarring.

Acne blemishes fall into two categories, depending on whether or not they cause inflammation of the surrounding skin.




Pustules (pimples)



Noninflammatory acne types

Whiteheads and blackheads are types of noninflammatory acne lesion. They are the least severe forms of acne.

Noninflammatory blemishes usually do not cause swelling and are not very painful.


The medical term for whiteheads is closed comedones. These are small, whitish or flesh-colored spots or bumps. They usually have a white, circular center surrounded by a red halo.

A hair will sometimes emerge from the center of a whitehead, or it may appear to be trapped within the blemish.

The skin around a whitehead may appear to be tight or wrinkled, especially when the whitehead is large or especially raised.

Normally, dead cells collect in the skin’s pores, then slowly rise to the surface of the openings and eventually fall away from the skin.

A natural body oil called sebum helps to prevent skin cells from drying out. The glands that produce this oil are attached to the pores.

When excess sebum builds up, it can cause dead cells to stick together, forming a mixture that becomes trapped in the pores.

Acne occurs when a pore becomes clogged with dead skin cells, natural body oils, and a type of bacteria.

These bacteria live on the skin and are called Propionibacterium acnes. If they enter and infect clogged pores, this causes acne blemishes to form.

When to see a doctor

In cases of minor-to-moderate acne, a person will generally have to use home and over-the-counter remedies consistently for 4–8 weeks before they see results.

More severe inflammatory types of acne tend to take much longer to clear up.

Speak to a doctor or dermatologist if whiteheads, blackheads, papules, or pustules:

  • are severe
  • do not respond to over-the-counter medications
  • are very painful
  • are very large
  • bleed a lot
  • release a lot of pus
  • cover a significant portion of the face or body
  • cause emotional distress
  • develop very close to sensitive areas, such as the eyes or lips

Most active ingredients in over-the-counter products are available in prescription-strength treatments.

Dermatologists can also remove lesions that are very large or persistent. They can also remove those that do not respond to other forms of treatment.

Always see a doctor or dermatologist about nodules and cysts, because these require medical care.

Untreated nodules and cysts and those that have been picked or popped can cause scarring.

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