Knowing your acne type by appearance, location, age, and underlying cause can help you know what to do with specific pimples and lesions, whether you need to see a dermatologist, and whether you should expect the acne to become a chronic condition that needs to be actively managed. More than just a quick and easy label, knowing the various types of acne will help you understand the personalized treatment plan put together with your doctor. Learn about the best ways to remove, treat, and prevent acne outbreaks from a certified dermatologist in St. Louis.
Types of Acne by Appearance
In general, the bigger and more painful the acne, the more serious the condition, but even large and painful acne lesions may respond well to treatment. While most teenage acne manifest as comedones (blackhead and whitehead pimples), a particularly bad lesion can quickly turn into pus-filled cystic acne requiring medical attention.
Some types of acne can resemble each other. Pustules may seem like just a big pimple to the untrained eye but are, in fact, a symptom of a more severe type of acne. What may have seemed like blackhead acne at first may turn out to be a nasty bug bite. Because it can be caused by clothing, heat, sweat, and/or friction, acne mechanica can present with nearly any type of acne lesion.
Knowing the type of acne by appearance can help you determine if over-the-counter acne medications are enough, or if you need to see a dermatologist. Here is a basic description for each type, but if you’re still unsure about your acne—or even whether a painful skin blemish is acne at all—then it may be time to make an appointment.
- Blackheads – bacteria and dead skin that block hair follicles and turn black when reacting with oxygen on the surface of the skin
- Whiteheads – oil glands covered by skin traps the oil, causing white spots on the skin
- Cystic – pus filled and painful to touch, generally bigger and deeper than the aforementioned types of acne; requires medical attention
- Papules – inflamed small red bumps on the skin
- Pustules – white spots generally filled with pus
- Nodules – hard, painful, inflamed bumps larger than papules or pustules; usually require medical treatment including medicine
Types of Acne by Location
You can get acne any place where there is a hair follicle—pretty much any place except the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. That said, there are definitely parts of the body some types of acne like more than others. The medical term to know here is ‘sebaceous glands.’ These are the glands that secrete sebum, the oily substance that keeps your skin from drying out. Unfortunately, these glands are also prone to continue secreting oil even after the pore is clogged. Some areas of the body have a higher concentration of these glands and are more prone to acne. The face is the most common location for acne, followed by the back and shoulders.
There is a big difference in acne treatment for the occasional pimple on the legs during summer and widespread acne across the back and shoulders. Learn more about what to expect with acne on different locations on the body.
- Face – most common location for acne with the highest density of sebaceous glands and greater exposure to the elements
- Back – a very common place for hormonal, external, and/or severe acne
- Shoulders – can be part of a widespread outbreak that includes the back or can be more isolated, potentially due to the clothing or friction
- Legs and Butt – commonly due to trapped sweat and moisture and summer shorts rubbing against the thighs
- Arms and Chest – may be acne pimples, a severe skin condition, or keratosis pilaris, an acne-like condition in which the pores are clogged by keratin
Types of Acne by Age
Teen acne vs. adult acne is the distinction familiar to most people. Nearly everybody will get at least a few pimples during their lifetime. Many struggle with acne for a short time during their teen years and then experience pimples only rarely after that. Some 20 million teenagers in the U.S. suffer from acne, some with more severe outbreaks than others. Even “normal” teenage acne can take its toll if it leads to lower self-esteem, social problems, and permanent scarring. If acne is impacting your overall health, simply being a teenager is no reason to avoid the dermatologist.
- Learn more about what to expect and when to see a doctor for teen acne.
Acne can also affect adults, either because of lifestyle factors and occupational hazards or because there is a predisposition to a more severe type of acne. Some people can seemingly break all the rules and never struggle with acne. Other people need to do everything right just to keep their adult acne in a manageable condition.
- Learn more about why and when you should see a dermatologist for adult acne.
Medical Types of Acne
There are different types of acne based on the shared characteristics and underlying causes of the acne lesions. Occasional pimples and mild acne may be treated with over-the-counter medications and a better skin care routine. If you have severe or recurring lesions that are painful and potentially scarring, knowing your specific type of acne will help determine which treatment is most likely to work for you. This is another reason why it’s important to see a dermatologist for severe types of acne.
- Acne Vulgaris – common whitehead and blackhead pimples caused by hormonal changes and other internal factors
- Acne Rosacea– often appears as a red rash on the cheeks, chin, and nose
- Acne Mechanica– results from excessive heat and appears where friction occurs on skin; affects athletes or those who often wear helmets or sports gear for prolonged periods
- Pyoderma Faciale– painful nodules and pustules believed to be stress-hormone related and often affects women ages 20 to 40
- Acne Fulminans– a rare and serious condition characterized by the sudden onset of nodular and ulcerative acne lesions. Patients may also experience fever and joint aches and this type of acne typically scars young men
- Acne Conglobata– interconnected lesions on the chest, upper arms, face, thighs and buttocks; the most rare and severe type; affects both men and women
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*Results may vary per patient.