Types of Acne Pimples and How to Treat Them

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

You can have clearer skin

  • Papules
  • Pustules
  • Nodules
  • Cysts
  • Frequently Asked Questions

All pimples are not the same—many types of acne exist, and each one features different types of pimples. Knowing what type you're dealing with can help you choose the most effective treatments for your skin.

Acne is a common skin disease, and pimples are one of its main symptoms. All pimples begin as a pore blockage or ​comedo. At first, they're small bumps that don't involve inflammation. However, when bacteria infect a comedo, or it's irritated by squeezing, it progresses into an inflamed pimple with redness and swelling. The four main types of inflamed pimples are:

  • Papules
  • Pustules
  • Nodules
  • Cysts
Diet and Acne

Myths about dietary causes of acne abound. Some are true, some are false. Interestingly, it's not junk food that medical science is linking to breakouts, but some of the "healthy" food groups.


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

Papules are inflamed blemishes that 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 and can occur anywhere on the face or body, including your:

  • Chest
  • Shoulders
  • Back Butt

Papules result when the wall of the hair follicle, what we often call the pore, ruptures. This allows cellular debris and bacteria to spill into the dermis (the deepest layer of the skin).

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

No matter what causes the break, it triggers inflammation in and around the follicle. The area turns red and swells, creating that firm red bump we call a pimple.


First things first—don't squeeze a papule to try to make it come to a head. You'll likely not extract any debris from the pore, but simply make the blemish more inflamed. Most papules will heal quickly and without scarring, since they are not deep lesions.

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


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

Pustules are your "typical" pimple—red and inflamed with an obvious head. Quite often the head is white (that's why these blemishes are also called whiteheads) but it can also be cream to yellow color. Sometimes a brownish spot can be seen in the middle of the blemish's head. This is the comedonal core, or 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—namely the face, back, and shoulders.


Pustules follow papules. After there is a rupture in the pore, the body rushes to defend against bacteria and help heal the wound. To do this, it sends white blood cells to do the job. The aftermath is the creation of pus.

It's the mixture of pus, dead skin cells, and excess oil that gives a pustule its white cap. That is also what you are squeezing out of the pore when you pop a pimple.

Popping pimples is never a good idea, by the way. When you squeeze a pimple you can inadvertently drive the contents deeper into the pore, making the blemish much worse.


Just like with papules, 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 dry out the occasional pustule.

If you have many pustules, or if they are very inflamed and hard to control with OTC products, you should see a dermatologist. Prescription medications, like topical retinoids or combination acne treatments, can help get these breakouts cleared up.


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

Nodules are serious types of acne pimples. Nodules are large, inflamed lesions that feel like hard, painful lumps under the skin. Where papules and pustules occur at the surface, nodules form deeper within the skin.


An acne nodule develops when the follicle wall ruptures deep within the dermis. Contaminated debris from the follicle empties into the dermis and infects adjoining follicles. The area swells considerably due to the damage and irritation, so nodules are quite painful.

Just like with pustules, nodules can be filled with pus but because they occur so deeply within the skin you won't see a white head.


Occasional nodules can typically be treated at home. (Women are especially prone to them around the time of their monthly cycle.) If your blemish is painful, you can ice the area to help relieve swelling and make it feel better. Again, don't squeeze them!

Because nodules are so large and deep, they can take between a few weeks and several months to fully heal. Want to banish that big zit fast? One option is a cortisone injection, but you'll have to see your dermatologist to get one.

Iif 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.


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

Cysts are very large, inflamed lesions. They feel like soft, fluid-filled lumps under the skin's surface. Acne cysts are the most severe form of a pimple and are very painful.


Like nodules, cysts begin as a deep break in the follicle wall. A membrane develops around the infection in the dermis, as the body tries to wall off the infection and protect the rest of the skin.

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

Many dermatologists say the term "cyst" is a bit of a misnomer because these types of blemishes aren't cysts in the true sense of the word. Instead, they say acne cysts are actually severe, swollen acne nodules. So, acne cyst and acne nodule are often used interchangeably to describe these serious inflammatory acne breakouts.

Acne cysts are filled with pus and, often, blood. They can take several weeks to several months to fully heal. Never, ever 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. The acne treatments you can get at the drugstore just won't help these blemishes, and there are no home remedies that will successfully treat cystic acne. You'll most likely need an oral acne medication, like Absorica (isotretinoin), to get acne of this severity under control.

Cystic breakouts easily lead to scarring. The sooner you see a dermatologist about your acne, the sooner you will start seeing improvement.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I remove dark spots caused by pimples?

Retinoid products such as Retin-A can help reduce pigmentation and scarring left behind after pimples heal. This medication makes your skin very sensitive to the sun, so you should protect yourself from sunburn.

Why shouldn’t you pop pimples?

Squeezing pimples can cause permanent scars and lead to more irritated, painful blemishes because debris in the pimple is pushed further into your skin. It can also cause infections from bacteria on your fingers. Dermatologists do sometimes use “acne extraction” to remove pimples. Because of the risks, it’s usually only done when other treatments don’t work.

How can I get rid of pimples fast?

Hydrocolloid patches, sometimes called “pimple stickers,” may help the occasional pimple disappear fairly quickly. It allows medication to be delivered to the spot, prevents acne, sun exposure and bacteria that can irritate the pimple, and stops you from picking at it. But these patches don’t help with wide patches of acne and won’t prevent ongoing breakouts.

A Word From ishonest

While getting a pimple every now and again isn't a big deal, if you're constantly battling breakouts and are struggling to get them under control, 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, so don't wait to make that call.


Read more on: blackheads, dark circles, pimples, pores, redness, spots, under eye

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