The first step to treating acne is determining exactly what type of acne it is. This can be difficult, of course, since there are many different variations — like whiteheads, blackheads, cysts, pustules, nodules, and papules — and each requires its own course of treatment. What makes it harder is that, if you walk down the aisle of any drugstore or beauty retailer, you’re inundated with products that promise to treat breakouts and keep zits under control. How do you know where to begin?
For starters, every skin-care routine needs a basic cleanser, treatment, and moisturizer, but those with acneic skin should stack their regimen with products formulated with breakout-fighting ingredients. The tricky thing is, not all acne ingredients are creating equal, and some work better on certain types of acne than others. (For example, benzoyl peroxide is great for clearing breakouts caused by bacteria, whereas salicylic acid dissolves the dirt and oil that could lead to blackheads.) So, in order to purchase the right treatment for your specific type of acne, you need to know what you’re dealing with.
A trip to your dermatologist is always the best way to assess any skin-care situation you’re experiencing but if you want to do a bit of research on your own as a preliminary first step, take the quiz ahead to help you determine what type of acne you have.
How would you describe your acne?
Do you notice a white pus in the center of your breakout?
Where is your acne located on your body?
Does your acne hurt to the touch?
You might have whiteheads, or “closed comedones,” which are considered to be noninflammatory acne and can occur anywhere on the face. They occur when oil and dead skin cells clog a pore, and are also typically accompanied by an oily T-zone. You should be able to identify this type of acne because they have a distinct look.
“They are covered by a thin layer of skin,” David Lortscher, MD, board-certified dermatologist and CEO and founder of Curology, told POPSUGAR. “Because of this, the contents of the whitehead are not exposed to air, so they appear white or yellowish.”
If your acne looks like tiny dark dots on your face, you probably have blackheads, aka “closed comedones.” They’re one of the most easily identified types of acne (just be sure you’re not confusing them with sebaceous filaments) and tend to be textured, thick, and waxy. Unlike other pimples that cause a raised bump on the skin, blackheads are flush with the skin.
Blackheads occur the same way as whiteheads — by dead skin cells and oil being trapped under the skin. “Oxidation of the trapped substances makes the pimple look black,” Dr. Lortscher said. Blackheads are extremely common on the T-zone, particularly the nose.
It sounds like you might have papules, a type of inflammatory acne. This means your pimples are usually raised, red, and occasionally tender to the touch. “Papules are tender bumps with redness and swelling caused by inflammation,” Dr. Lortscher said. “They are usually less than five millimeters,” which is much smaller than cysts or nodules. These tiny bumps can feel hard to the touch and can be grouped together in large clusters.
You might have the acne type called pustules, which are pus-filled zits that look similar to whiteheads in appearance because they have a white core, but they’re much larger in size. They are “inflamed lesions with a visible central core of pus and are usually raised about one to five millimeters,” Dr. Lortscher said.
This type of pimple is usually tempting to pop, because there is raised white pus, but you should refrain from touching it because it can lead to scarring.
You might have cystic acne, the most severe and chronic type of acne. Cysts are the type of pimples that you can feel coming days before they fully form. Unlike pustules and whiteheads, they often begin to develop deep beneath the skin, which makes them particularly challenging to treat. They also have a reputation for being painful because, Dr. Lortscher said, they’re “highly inflamed” and contain pus. When picked at, cystic pimples have a tendency to leave behind scarring.
Hormonal acne can often present itself in the form of cysts. Most people who menstruate and experience this get breakouts on their jawline around the time of their period. This type of acne is almost always best treated with the help of a dermatologist.
Not to be confused with cysts, nodules are “large, firm, reddish bumps that extend deeper than a papule and are often painful to the touch,” Dr. Lortscher said. Like cysts, they’re difficult to pop but they differ in their appearance: they create a hard, visible bump on the surface of the skin.
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