Complicated Acne Terms Explained


Whether you’re researching acne online or chatting with your dermatologist, often words and phrases pop up that sound as foreign as that red pimple looks on your chin. We break down the phrases you’ve often heard, but have no idea what they actually mean.
Acne vulgaris:The medical term for common acne, a chronic skin disease involving blockage and/or inflammation of pilosebaceous units.

Androgens: A group of male reproductive hormones, the most active being testosterone, that are present in both males and females.  It can contribute to acne flare ups by enlarging the sebaceous glands, which causes them to increase sebum (oil) production.

Comedones: A clogged pore caused by excess oil mixing with dead skin cells. It can be a blackhead (open comedone) or a whitehead (closed comedone).

Cystic Acne: The most severe type of acne that’s often caused by genetics, and results from the combination of hyperactive oil glands and excess skin cells. This creates a breeding ground for bacteria, causing oil ducts deep under the skin to become infected.

Keratinization: The process of shedding dead skin cells in the epidermis. In acne-prone individuals, the dead skin cells are not shed properly and end up clogging the sebaceous glands.

Microcomedone: A small keratinous plug at the hair follicle pore that blocks the release of the sebum to the surface, creating the ideal environment for acne bacteria to flourish. This is the first step in acne formation.

Nodules: Large, hard bumps under the surface of the skin that often leave an acne scar once cleared.

Open Comedone: Follicles that have a abnormally large opening and fill with plugs of sebum and sloughed-off cells. These cells have undergone a chemical reaction that oxidizes the melanin, resulting in their darker color (blackhead).

Papules: A small, raised pimple that is solid with no visible fluid.

Pilosebaceous Unit: Epidermal structure consisting of the hair shaft, the hair follicle, the sebaceous gland, and the erector pili muscle.

Propionibacterium acnes (aka P. acnes): The bacteria primarily responsible for acne that grows deep inside the pores where it feeds on the sebum.

Pustules: Small bumps on the skin that fill with fluid or pus in a sweat gland or hair follicle. Also known as “the common pimple.”

Sebaceous glands: Exocrine glands in the skin that produce an oily or waxy matter called sebum, the skin’s natural moisturizer. Sebum: An oily secretion of the sebaceous gland which helps lubricate and preserve the flexibility of the skin.

Click here to learn about acne conglobata, an uncommon form of severe acne.