What Is the Difference Between Blackheads and Pimples?

What's the difference between a blackhead and a pimple? Both pimples and blackheads are types of acne blemishes, but these blemishes develop differently, and are treated differently, too.

Pimples: Red and Inflamed

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 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Pimples are a type of inflamed blemish. Pimple are red and swollen. They often hurt, but not always.

Some pimples stay small, but others can get fairly large. Pimples can appear on the:

  • Face
  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Upper torso area
  • Butt

Blackheads: Not Inflamed

Blackheads are non-inflamed blemishes. They are typically flat, aren't red or swollen, and they don't hurt. In fact, you might not even notice you have a blackhead unless you're really inspecting your skin in the mirror.

You can get blackheads in the same places pimples appear, but they're most common on the nose, chin, around the lips, and in the ears.

Some blackheads can get quite large and obvious, while others are so tiny you can barely see them with the naked eye.

Pimples: Red or White Head

There are actually many different types of pimples (crazy, right?) 

A pimple with a red head, or just a red bump on the skin, is called an acne papule.

Your papule, as it progresses, may develop a white or yellow pus-filled top. If it does, it's now called an acne pustuleNot all papules turn into pustules, though. 

Pustules are sometimes called "whiteheads." Just to make things more interesting (or confusing) there is another type of blemish that is also called a whitehead: milia.

Although they share the same nickname, milia and pustules are completely different types of blemishes. In fact, there are many different skin issues that cause white bumps on the skin. But if your bump is red, inflamed, with an obvious white head, it's more than likely an acne pustule.

Blackheads: Dark Brown or Black Head

Blackheads have a dark blackish-looking head, hence the name. Some blackheads are more brown than black.

Blackheads look like a well-defined dark dot on the skin. Have a "freckle" appear that has never been there before? Look closely; it's probably a blackhead. 

Some blackheads are super tiny, so small you can barely see them. Other blackheads can get quite large, several millimeters in diameter.

The technical name for a blackhead is open comedo.

How Pimples Develop

Pustule Illustration
Image: BSIP/UIG / Getty Images

Pimples develop when a plug of oil and dead skin cells become trapped in the pore. This plug stops up the pore opening.

Your skin's sebaceous glands continue to do what they're designed to do: create oil for your skin. The oil is pumped into the pore.

However, instead of being able to flow up and out of the pore, it becomes trapped in the pore by the plug. Add in some normal skin bacteria (Propionibacteria acnes) and the follicle becomes irritated and engorged.

With nowhere else to go, this glut of oil, skin cells, and bacteria swells and breaks the follicle wall. White blood cells rush in, and the pore becomes red and swollen. 

Voila! A pimple has formed.

How Blackheads Develop

Blackhead illustration
Image: BSIP/UIG / Getty Images

Similar to a pimple, blackheads also appear when a plug develops in the follicle. The difference is, the plug develops at the skin's surface and not deeper within the pore.

Although it may look like dirt has become trapped in your pore, that black spot isn't dirt at all. It's actually the plug of your skin's oil that you're seeing.

The top of the plug oxidizes because it's exposed to air, and turns into that dark blackish-brown spot your see. (Think about what happens to an apple when it's cut and exposed to air; it turns brown. Same thing happens with blackheads.)

Blackheads typically don't become red and swollen because they rarely lead to a break in the follicle wall.

Treating Pimples

Plenty of pimple-busting products and medications are available. For minor breakouts, over-the-counter acne medications should do the trick.

More stubborn or widespread acne can be treated with prescription acne medications that you get from your healthcare provider.

Some of the most common treatments for inflamed breakouts are:

Remember, don't pop inflamed pimples. This won't help them to heal any faster but can cause acne scars.

Treating Blackheads

Because blackheads occur at the skin's surface, you can gently squeeze blackheads to remove them (gently being the operative word). You can extract blackheads yourself or have an esthetician extract them for you during a facial.

Pore strips are another way to treat blackheads, although the results are temporary. They just get the top portion rather than the entire blackhead. For quick results, say just before a big event or a photo op, they're a good option.

To keep blackheads away for good, though, you need to get on a regular treatment program. Again, mild blackheads can be treated with OTC products. 

If you have lots of blackheads and bumpy skin, you have a type of non-inflamed acne called comedonal acne. Prescription medications are best to treat more entrenched comedonal acne.

Options for treating blackheads include:

A Word from Verywell

Although inflamed pimples and blackheads are different types of acne blemishes, they get their start the same basic way: as a plug of oil within the pore.

Everyone gets occasional pimples and blackheads. These random blemishes generally heal quickly and aren't a big concern.

If you're struggling with constant pimples and blackheads, though, give your healthcare provider a call. They can help you find treatment options for getting breakouts under control.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is there a difference between acne and pimples?

    Yes, there is a difference between acne and pimples. The word acne is used to describe multiple different skin issues caused by pore blockage, which includes pimples. However, pore blockage doesn't always result in a pimple, since it can also cause a blackhead or a whitehead to form. Each type of acne has its own method of treatment.

  • Is blackhead removal safe?

    Blackhead removal is safe when performed by a healthcare provider, specifically a dermatologist. It can also be done by an experienced esthetician, also known as a technician who is trained in cosmetic skin treatment. Reaching out to a professional for help is the best option for blackhead and pimple removal. Trying to get rid of them yourself can make it worse.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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