When the only thing in the world you want is clear skin, a refresher course in the scientific words used to describe all the different signs of acne may not be high on your list of priorities. But it should be! Knowing what signs of acne you’re dealing with is the first step in any successful treatment regimen, which is why we’ve compiled this handy guide.
In terms of appearance, they’re pretty much exactly what they sound like: small blemishes with whitish “heads,” which result when the follicles get plugged with sebum and dead skin cells. Sebum is another word for oil but don’t be alarmed. Your skin needs a certain amount of natural oil to protect and nourish your skin. It’s only when there’s excess sebum and dead skin cells that you risk clogged pores.
If you see tiny blemishes that look like black dots, you’ve got blackheads. Like whiteheads, blackheads are, dermatologically speaking, classified as comedones. But unlike whiteheads, which are closed, blackheads are open, hence the black appearance—it’s what happens when the debris inside the follicle becomes oxidized. Comedones are another term for clogged hair follicles (pores). So if it’s clean and clear, call it a pore; if it’s clogged, call it a comedo or the plural, comedones.
Considering papules represent the phase beyond whiteheads, when the presence of bacteria, sebum, and dead skin cells under the skin have caused inflammation, you should know papules by their redness and swelling—not to mention, the absence of pus. Relatively speaking, they’re small to medium in size. Since inflammation and irritation are the symptoms of a papule, it’s best not to apply anything that will dry it out further. The goal is to soothe and calm the area until the medication helps subside it.
Pustules are similar to papules, but they’ve got pus—which hopefully makes the name easy to remember! Because they contain whitish or yellowish-looking pus, they can look a lot like bigger, “angrier” whiteheads, and they may feel painful to the touch. It’s tempting to want to squeeze them right away but you could pay for it later with a post-breakout scar. Patience is a virtue when it comes to pustules as you should wait until a whitehead is visible. Then you can carefully extract it.
5. Severe Acne: Nodules, Cysts and Acne Conglobata
If you’ve got a face full of large, red, inflamed blemishes that seem to last for months, chances are you’ve got one type of severe acne: nodules, cysts, or acne conglobata. These are indicative of a deeper condition than your average acne type and can cause more severe and permanent damage to your skin if left untreated. If topical, over-the-counter treatments aren’t clearing these types of blemishes after a few weeks, it’s time to see a dermatologist for stronger, prescription-strength medicine.
Click here to learn about back acne, those annoying acne outbreaks on your back.