An Overview of Acne Pustules

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An acne pustule is a type of pimple. These bulging patches of skin are pores that have become clogged with pus, sebum (oil), and cell debris. They may also be called whiteheads, blemishes, and zits. Though pustules can appear anywhere on the body, they're usually found on the face, neck, shoulders, and back.

Acne pustules can occur at any age. They're especially common, though, among teenagers and young adults who are undergoing hormonal changes that sometimes trigger acne breakouts.

How to Treat Acne Pustules

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

This article will explain how acne pustules are different from other types of skin problems, why some people are more likely to get them, and how you can treat these pimples with over-the-counter (OTC) products and prescription medications. There are also suggestions for how you can prevent breakouts.

Acne Pustule Symptoms

Acne pustule appear different from other types of acne blemishes. A pustule is a red, inflamed pimple that has a white head filled with white, yellow, or cream-colored pus that oozes out if the pustule is pierced or broken.

Sometimes a brownish dot can be seen in the middle of a whitehead. This means debris is clogging the pore.

Pustules tend to occur near oil glands, especially around the face, back, chest, and shoulders. They can vary in size from very small to quite large.

Unlike noninflamed acne lesions, such as blackheads, milia, and comedones, pustules are sometimes tender to the touch.


Acne pustules develop when the walls of an affected pore begin to break down. It becomes a red, swollen skin blemish called a papule. White blood cells gather on the papule to fight against infection as the pore breaks down. These cells form the pus you see inside the blemish.

At this point, the papule becomes a pustule that is filled with sebum, bacteria, and cell debris. The bacteria associated with acne is Propionibacterium acnes.

Typical acne triggers include hormonal changes that occur during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause; diet; oil and dirt allowed to build up on the skin; and certain medications. Acne also has a genetic component, meaning that family history can play a role.


Acne pustules form when a pore starts to break down and fills with bacteria as well as oil and debris from the skin. An inflamed bump forms on the skin that can be tender when it's touched.


Acne pustules are easily diagnosed based on a few things:

  • How the pimples appear
  • Whether or not you have a personal or family history of acne
  • Other symptoms such as fever or fatigue associated with viruses

Acne is usually categorized by how large and widespread the pustules are. Doctors may grade it as mild, moderate, or severe.

However, in addition to acne, other skin conditions can cause pustules. These include psoriasis, chickenpox, and even insect bites. A pustule that's exceptionally large may be a boil. A dermatologist—a doctor who specializes in conditions involving the skin, hair, and nails—can differentiate between acne pustules and those caused by another condition.


Acne pustules typically heal on their own if left alone. However, because they're unsightly, especially when they appear on the face, most people don't want to wait for them to clear up naturally. To get rid of acne more quickly, you can try over-the-counter products, but sometimes, a stronger prescription medication may be needed.

Topical Treatments

OTC and prescription-strength creams or gels may be used as spot treatments that you can apply to individual blemishes. Other options include cleansers and body washes.

The active ingredients in most acne products are:

  • Salicylic acid, which works as an exfoliant
  • Benzoyl peroxide, which kills the bacteria that cause acne
  • Retinoids, such as tretinoin, which are derived from vitamin A
  • Adapalene, a retinoid-like ingredient sold under the brand name Differin in both OTC and prescription strengths
  • Topical antibiotics, including clindamycin and erythromycin

Oral Treatments

Antibiotics such as tetracycline, erythromycin, minocycline, and doxycycline are commonly used for acne. For very severe acne, a powerful oral retinoid called isotretinoin (formerly available under the brand name Accutane) is sometimes prescribed. It must be used with caution because it causes severe birth defects.

Photodynamic Therapy

For severe acne pustules, a procedure called photodynamic therapy (PDT) may be used. This combines light and a special light-activated solution to shrink the skin's oil glands. This can drastically reduce the amount of oil within the pores to shrink pimples.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Some natural products may also help treat acne pustules, although there is scant research to prove they're effective. These include tea tree oil, bovine cartilage, zinc, jojoba oil, and aloe vera.

Hands Off

Although it's tempting, popping pimples can lead to scarring and infection. It can also prolong the amount of time it takes for a blemish to clear up.


There are several types of pustules. Acne pustules look different than  other common forms, so doctors can usually diagnosis the condition just by examining you.

Often these pimples go away on their own, but you can try over-the-counter medications to help speed up the healing. For severe acne, your doctor may prescribe stronger treatments. You also might need an antibiotic to clear up the pustules. 


For people who are prone to frequent acne breakouts, there are measures that can help prevent blemishes such as pustules. These include:

  • Keeping skin clean and free of oil
  • Shampooing regularly to prevent acne breakouts at the hairline
  • Using sunscreens, moisturizers, makeup, and other products that are labeled "noncomedogenic," which means they're formulated not to provoke acne
  • Bathing or showering after strenuous physical activity to remove oil and sweat that can lead to breakouts


Acne pustules can be a minor annoyance or a significant problem that affects your quality of life. These blemishes are a type of pimple that develop when pores get clogged by oil and dead skin cells. They differ from other pustules, which might be caused by a virus, infection, or insect bite.

Cleaning and moisturizing your skin can help prevent breakouts Following a healthy diet can also keep acne under control. Some risk factors such as genetics and hormonal changes aren't as easily managed. However, there are a variety of treatments that can help clear up pustules when they appear.

A Word From Verywell

Acne pustules are common and harmless, but they are also unsightly—and that can be upsetting. There are a number of effective measures that can help treat and/or prevent pustules and other blemishes, from simple home remedies to prescription medications.

If you frequently develop acne pustules, given the wide range of options, you should be able to find an effective approach to dealing with them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I have acne?

    Clogged pores cause acne. Some people are more likely to develop clogged pores. Hormonal changes during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause increase your risk of acne. Other things that can make you prone to breakouts are a family history of acne and not washing your face after sweating or at the end of the day.

  • Can certain foods make me break out?

    Possibly. Certain foods seem to be linked with acne breakouts. Sugary and starchy foods that are broken down quickly by the body (known as high-glycemic foods) make your blood sugar spike. This causes inflammation and an increase in oil on the skin (sebum), which may lead to acne. 

  • Can face masks cause acne?

    Yes. Regularly wearing a mask can lead to breakouts. To prevent them, find a mask that will not move around a lot, since the friction irritates your skin, and maintain a proper skincare routine. Also, be sure you are using a clean, dry mask every day. 

8 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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Additional Reading

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