4 Types of Pimples and How to Treat Them

Some types of acne require specialized treatment

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Pimples are clogged pores (hair follicles) that have become inflamed. They're generally the result of the overproduction of oil in your skin combined with bacteria.

You're most likely to get pimples in areas with a lot of oil glands, which includes your face, neck, shoulders, chest, and back. Common types of inflamed pimples include papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts.

Acne comes in several types, depending on the types of pimples it causes. Knowing which type you have can help you choose the best treatment for your skin.

All pimples begin as a pore blockage or ​comedo. At first, a pimple is a small bump that isn't inflamed. A comedo becomes inflamed when bacteria infect it. This can also happen when it's irritated by squeezing. An inflamed pimple is red and swollen.


Click Play to Learn How to Identify Inflamed Pimples

This video has been medically reviewed by Casey Gallagher, MD.

Different types of pimples respond to different medications. Certain types of acne may require specialized treatment.

This article looks at the main types of acne. It also discusses the causes and treatment of different types of pimples.

Diet and Acne

There are many beliefs about dietary causes of acne. Some are true, some are false. Interestingly, research has not found much of a link between junk food and acne. Instead, certain carbs, dairy, and meat may be to blame.


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Acne Papules

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Papules are inflamed blemishes. They appear on the skin's surface. They look like red bumps or lumps on the skin. They don't have a white head.

Papules can be large or small. They can occur anywhere on the face or body, including your:


Papules can be caused by acne vulgaris. This occurs when the wall of a hair follicle ruptures. Hair follicles are also called pores.

When this happens, cellular debris and bacteria spill into the dermis. The dermis is the deepest layer of skin.

A break in the pore can occur when the follicle fills with dead skin cells and oil. Pressure from squeezing a blackhead or blocked pore can also cause a rupture.

The rupture triggers inflammation in and around the follicle. The area turns red and swells. This is what creates the firm red bump we call a pimple.


Don't squeeze a papule to try and make it come to a head. You probably won't extract any debris from the pore. Instead, you may simply make it more inflamed.

Papules are not deep lesions. This means most of them will heal quickly without scarring.

Over-the-counter (OTC) benzoyl peroxide treatments can help heal acne papules. They may also prevent new blemishes from forming. If OTC products don't improve your breakouts after 10 to 12 weeks, though, you may need a prescription acne medication.


This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.


Arnuphap Yaiphimai / Getty Images

Pustules are red and inflamed with an obvious head. The head is often white. That's why these blemishes are also called whiteheads. The head can also be cream to yellow in color.

Sometimes a brownish spot appears in the middle of the head. This is the comedonal core. It is a plug of debris within the pore.

Acne pustules range in size from small to fairly large. They develop in the same areas that papules do. This is usually the face, back, and shoulders.


Pustules follow papules. When the pore ruptures, the body sends white blood cells to fight bacteria. This is what causes pus.

A mixture of pus, dead skin cells, and excess oil gives a pustule its white cap. Squeezing a pimple extracts this material.

Popping pimples is never a good idea. When you squeeze a pimple you can drive the contents deeper into the pore. This can make the blemish much worse.


Mild acne or occasional pustules can be treated at home with OTC benzoyl peroxide creams or cleansers. Acne spot treatments containing salicylic acid can also help.

See a dermatologist if:

  • You have many pustules
  • Your pustules are very inflamed
  • Your acne is hard to control with OTC products

Prescription medications like topical retinoids or combination acne treatments can help.


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Cystic acne

 CMSP / Getty Images

Nodules are serious acne pimples. They are large, inflamed lesions. They feel like hard, painful lumps under the skin.

Papules and pustules occur at the surface, but nodules form deeper within the skin.


An acne nodule develops when the follicle wall ruptures deep within the dermis. Contaminated debris from the follicle infects nearby follicles.

The damage and irritation causes the area to swell. This makes nodules quite painful.

Like pustules, nodules can be filled with pus. Because they occur deep within the skin, though, you won't see a white head.

Females are prone to getting acne nodules around the time of their monthly cycle.

What Is Hormonal Acne?

Hormonal acne is acne that affects adults between ages 20 and 50. It is caused when hormones cause an excess of sebum in oil glands. While it can affect any gender, it is more common in women and can be linked to menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause.


Occasional nodules can usually be treated at home. If your blemish is painful, you can ice the area to help relieve swelling. Don't try squeezing a nodule or any other pimple.

Nodules can take between a few weeks and several months to fully heal. This is because they are large and deep.

Ask your dermatologist about a cortisone injection. This can help make your pimples go away faster.

If you're prone to nodular breakouts, you'll definitely want to make an appointment with a dermatologist. These types of blemishes don't respond to over-the-counter acne treatments. You'll need a prescription acne medication to get them under control.


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Acne nodules

Dr. Milton Reisch / Getty Images 

Cysts are very large, inflamed lesions. They feel like soft, fluid-filled lumps under the skin. Acne cysts are the most severe form of pimple. They can be very painful.


Like nodules, cysts begin as a deep break in the follicle wall. The body tries to wall off the infection by surrounding it with a membrane.

As an acne cyst works its way to the surface, it damages healthy skin tissue. This can destroy the follicle. The likelihood of acne scarring is very high.

An acne cyst isn't a true cyst. It is actually a severe, swollen, acne nodule. You may hear the terms acne cyst and acne nodule used interchangeably.

Acne cysts are filled with pus. They may also contain blood. They can take several weeks to several months to fully heal.

Never try to extract an acne cyst on your own. If they must be drained, it has to be done by a doctor.


If you are prone to cystic acne, talk to a dermatologist. OTC acne treatments won't help these blemishes. There are no home remedies that can successfully treat cystic acne.

Oral acne medications like Absorica (isotretinoin) are the best treatment options for cystic acne.

Cystic breakouts scar easily. The sooner you see a dermatologist about your acne, the sooner you will see improvement.


There are four main types of pimples. These include papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts.

Papules and pustules can be treated at home. Try a benzoyl peroxide cleanser or a salicylic spot treatment.

Nodules and acne cysts may require help from a dermatologist. A dermatologist can give you a cortisone injection or prescribe medication that will help clear up your skin. 

A Word From Verywell

Getting a pimple every now and again isn't a big deal. If you're constantly battling breakouts and struggling to get them under control, though, it's time to make an appointment with a dermatologist.

This is especially true if you're prone to larger blemishes like acne nodules. Medications can help you clear your skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I remove dark spots caused by pimples?

    Dark spots caused by pimples can be treated with retinoid products like Retin-A. These can help reduce pigmentation and scarring.

  • Why shouldn’t you pop pimples?

    Squeezing pimples can cause permanent scars. It can also lead to irritated, painful blemishes. This is because squeezing can push debris further into the skin. In some cases, popping pimples can cause an infection from bacteria on the fingers.

  • What are pimple stickers?

    Hydrocolloid patches, sometimes called “pimple stickers,” may help get rid of pimples fast. These deliver medication to the spot, prevent sun exposure and irritating bacteria, and discourage picking. These products can be found at your local drug store or pharmacy.

  • What is fungal acne?

    Fungal acne is often confused with hormonal acne. Also known as Malassezia or Pityrosporum folliculitis, it is caused by an overgrowth of a yeast or fungus. Like hormonal acne, it starts in the hair follicles. Fungal acne causes whiteheads that often become red, inflamed and irritated. It can also be very itchy.

  • How do you know if acne is bacterial?

    Bacterial acne causes whiteheads with a red ring around the bump known as pustules. Most acne is caused by bacteria trapped in the pores. For moderate to severe breakouts, antibiotics may be prescribed.

  • How do I know if my acne is hormonal or bacterial?

    Hormonal acne is a type of bacterial acne. Linked to puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy, it occurs when hormones cause an excess of sebum production. Bacteria becomes trapped in the pores causing blemishes.
    Other bacterial acne triggers include stress, steroid medications, and lithium.

  • What are blind pimples?

    A blind pimple is a pimple that forms under the skin and doesn’t have an obvious head. Some pimples start out as blind pimples before erupting into a white head. Blind pimples can be sore to the touch and may turn red. Do not try to pop a blind pimple. It will only make it more irritated—and obvious.

  • What does stress acne look like?

    Stress acne tends to appear on oily parts of the skin, like your forehead, nose and chin. It may include white heads, blackheads, and dilated pores. The skin around the acne may also be red and have an oily sheen. 

9 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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  2. Merck Manual Professional Version. Acne Vulgaris.

  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Office on Women’s Health. Acne.

  4. Leyden J, Stein-Gold L, Weiss J. Why topical retinoids are mainstay of therapy for acne. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017;7(3):293-304. doi:10.1007%2Fs13555-017-0185-2

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Pimple popping.

  6. Zagórska-Dziok M, Sobczak M. Hydrogel-based active substance release systems for cosmetology and dermatology application: a reviewPharmaceutics. 2020;12(5). doi:10.3390%2Fpharmaceutics12050396

  7. Rubenstein RM, Malerich SA. Malassezia (pityrosporum) folliculitis. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(3):37-41.

  8. NIH: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Acne: Diagnosis, treatment, and steps to take.

  9. American Academy of Family Physicians: FamilyDoctor.org. Acne.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.