This Is How to Treat Every Type of Acne

Updated: Aug. 27, 2019

Acne is the most common skin problem in the United States, with about 40 to 50 million sufferers. Here are the treatments dermatologists recommend for every type of acne.

Man's hands squeeze whiteheads on the chin
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One of the more recognizable types of acne, whiteheads occur when a thin layer of skin covers a pore clogged with dead cells or debris, creating a white, round bump on the skin, explains Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologist in Omaha and RealSelf contributor. While they can be caused by a variety of factors, the most common include a buildup of oil, dead skin cells, and hormonal changes. Whatever you do, resist the urge to pop them, as doing so can spread acne-causing bacteria and may even result in scarring, warns Dr. Schlessinger. The best way to treat whiteheads is to keep the area around them free of bacteria and dead skin cells. Most whiteheads naturally go away in about a week, but if they don’t, Dr. Schlessinger recommends cleansing in the morning and evening with a facial cleanser containing salicylic and glycolic acid, like the LovelySkin LUXE Clarifying Gel Cleanser.

Close up of blackhead pimples on the nose
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Blackheads are caused by clogged pores and excess oil production due to hormonal changes. “While whiteheads get their appearance from the layer of skin covering the pore, blackheads are left uncovered and exposed to air, which causes their dark appearance,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “Though extractors can be used to remove the plug that causes a blackhead, this should be left to trained skin care professionals and dermatologists to avoid the spread of bacteria.” He recommends using an over-the-counter retinol or stronger, prescription-strength retinoid that will help encourage cell turnover and prevent pores from getting clogged with dead skin cells and oil in the first place. Here are 5 skin-care ingredients you should never mix—and 4 you should.

Closeup young woman with a pore strip on her T-zone to remove blackheads

T-zone acne

Acne that shows up across the forehead, nose, chin in a T-shape formation, is very common. It’s often caused by pollution and most often produces red zits and whiteheads. “Whiteheads are typically what is found on the T-zone area, so over-the-counter products that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, such as ProactivMD Deep Cleansing Wash, and retinoids should clear this type of acne,” says Dendy Engelman, MD, a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, New York City.

Woman applying acne cream to her face

Hormonal acne

Hormonal acne isn’t just for teenagers. “This type of breakout appears due to the excess oil one’s hormones produce, causing build-up, clogged pores, and further causing acne,” says Dr. Engelman. “For women, oral contraception should balance your hormone levels and essentially clear your skin—if not, co-cyprindiol is a hormonal treatment that can be used for more severe acne that doesn’t respond to antibiotics.” Here’s what you need to know about hormonal acne—and how to clear it for good.

Close up photo of nodular cystic acne skin
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Pustules are fluid- or pus-filled bumps on the skin that are the result of bacterial infections in the pores. “While their severity varies, depending on how many are present and how quickly they have formed, smaller pustules will diminish naturally and can be treated with over-the-counter products containing salicylic acid,” says Dr. Schlessinger. If your skin is prone to pustules, it’s important to make acne care part of your daily routine. “The LovelySkin LUXE Acne Care Kit is a great regimen for anyone looking to heal existing blemishes or prevent breakouts,” he adds. “If pustules persist or occur in large numbers, a combination of oral and topical antibiotics offers the best results.” Discover the truth behind the 7 worst myths about adult acne.

Close up picture of papules on skin
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These small, red bumps on the skin often appear in clusters and can be quite painful. Luckily, they respond relatively well to medications such as antibiotics or topical treatments such as tretinoin. Retinol, too, can assist with papules. One of Dr. Schlessinger’s favorite retinol-containing treatments is Jan Marini Age Intervention Retinol Plus. “If you are looking for a straight benzoyl peroxide product, there are many over-the-counter options, including Jan Marini Skin Research Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Treatment Lotion 10%. Find out what else you can do to get rid of acne once and for all.

close up of nodular cystic acne skin

Cystic acne

This is one of the types of acne that typically occurs deep beneath the skin’s surface and is incredibly painful. “Like most blemishes, this type of acne results when pores become clogged with oil and dead skin cells, but the infection dives deeper into the skin, resulting in larger red bumps that fill with fluid,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “Cystic acne typically results from hormone changes, which is why it’s most common in teenagers, though it may affect people of all ages.” Unlike whiteheads and milder blemishes, cystic acne isn’t a waiting game, so a dermatologist should be consulted to come up with a regimen that best suits your individual needs. “Typically a combination of antibiotics and prescription-strength topical treatments works the best,” he says. “If this isn’t doing the trick, isotretinoin may be used for more stubborn cystic acne.” Here are more tips on how to get rid of cystic acne.

Close up of a chin afflicted by acne fulminans
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Acne fulminans

This rare form of severe cystic acne is most common in teenage boys, and it’s characterized by very inflamed nodules and plaques with open sores on the chest, back, and face, according to Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, a dermatologist and founder of Entiere Dermatology in New York City. “There can also be systemic signs such as fevers, an elevated white blood cell count, joint pain, bone involvement, and muscle pain,” she adds. “Treatment often requires oral systemic steroids, isotretinoin, and other systemic medications.” If you suffer from severe acne, it’s even more important to avoid these bad habits that make acne scars worse.

Close up of the face of a woman with severe acne or nodules
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Like cystic acne, nodules are another type of severe acne that require the help of your dermatologist. “Nodular acne can stick around for weeks or even months without proper treatment,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “Unlike cystic acne, these blemishes may be the same color as your skin or turn red when inflamed.” He recommends using antibiotics and prescription-strength topical treatments with your dermatologist’s guidance. Learn about what acne can tell you about your overall health.

Young woman looking at mirror and examining her skin
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Acne mechanica

“This type of acne occurs as the result of heat and friction, from pressure against the skin or wearing sports gear or damp workout clothes, which triggers an increase in irritation and excess oil that cause breakouts,” explains Sarah Walker, a family nurse practitioner at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, McLean, VA. “It is sometimes called ‘sports-induced acne’ because it occurs frequently in athletes.” To prevent acne mechanica, she recommends taking a shower promptly after exercising or sweating, not wearing a hat for long periods of time, not wearing clothes that are too tight and switching from synthetic material to breathable fabrics, like cotton. “A benzoyl peroxide-based wash, like Panoxyl, and glycolic acid pads, like Cane & Austin Retexture pads, can exfoliate the skin and prevent breakouts before they get started,” she says. Additionally, your dermatologist may also prescribe a topical combination medication that helps remove excess dead skin cells and bacteria. Next, find out the skin care ingredients that might be making you break out.