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January 16, 2019

Breakouts 101: The Different Types & What You Can Do About Them

Breakouts can be the bane of our skincare existence. But to treat them correctly, you have to first know what they are. Here, a primer on the different types of breakouts and what you can do to deal with them.


Breakouts. Sigh. For a lot of us who aren’t genetically blessed (like my sister, who’s never had a pimple in her life, true story), they are an inevitable aspect of our lives. For me, I’m prone to hormonal acne and the occasional cyst. But what’s the difference? What are the different types of breakouts you can have? And how can you treat them? Never fear, for your unni Sheryll is here!


What is a breakout & what are the different types?


First things first, a breakout is when your skin gets irritated due to a multitude of things — clogged pores, hormones, dirt, debris, incompatible products, stress, excess sugar or dairy … I mean, it’s a whole host of things. But knowing exactly what kind of breakout you have is the first step in getting rid of it properly. There are four main types of breakouts that I’m going to talk about today:


1. Comedones

2. Whiteheads

3. Blackheads

4. Inflammatory Acne







Simply put, comedones (or a comedo, in the singular) is a hair follicle that’s become clogged with dirt, oil, and bacteria. It is the most basic form of acne and can be found on your face, chest, and back. A closed comedo is flesh-toned and can turn into either a whitehead or a blackhead if not treated.


The cause

Products that are comedogenic (aka pore-clogging) can cause comedones to form. For me, this is coconut oil, which triggered a massive breakout that took me months to recover from.


The tools

Make sure to use products that are non-comedogenic aka, non-pore clogging. If you’re a makeup wearer, make sure to look specifically for products that are oil-free. I’m sure that this is common sense, but washing your face two times a day with a gentle pH-friendly cleanser is also another major key to avoiding pesky comedones.




A whitehead is a comedo that stays closed on the surface. It has a small white top, which is why it’s caused a whitehead.



The cause

When the skin above a comedo is covered in dead skin cells and oil and dirt, it forms a plug above the comedo. All of that gunk gets trapped, and BOOM … a whitehead forms. So it’s in your best interest to free those comedones as soon as possible so the dirt and oil can “escape.” The life cycle of a whitehead is about five days to a week.


The tools

An AHA is going to be your best defense against a whitehead. AHAs work on the surface of the skin, basically “untrapping” that closed comedo and freeing it. For a 1-2 punch, add in a BHA to unglue all of that debris under the surface. Glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid are all different types of AHAs you can incorporate into your routine.




Blackheads are the somewhat opposite of whiteheads. Instead of being covered in a layer of dead skin, blackheads are open at the surface. They are basically the comedo that’s kinda getting pushed to the surface. Contrary to popular belief, blackheads aren’t dirt. Actually, since the pore is open, it is exposed to the air and oxidizes, making it that dark color. It’s kinda like what happens when you buy a bad foundation.


The cause

Like whiteheads, blackheads are caused by clogged hair follicles, aka comedones.


The tools

BHAs are your best weapon against blackheads. BHAs work deep in the pores to unglue all of that dead skin and oil. The COSRX BHA Liquid is one of the BEST products for blackheads, hands down.


Inflammatory Acne


Inflammatory acne is when a whitehead, blackhead, or comedo becomes infected. There are multiple types of inflammatory acne, including:


1. Papules

Comedones that have become extremely inflamed and infected. They are small, red, raised, and can sometimes appear in clusters.


2. Pustules

Comedones that again, have become infected, but this time, appear with white or yellow pus in the middle. They look like whiteheads, but are often red around the perimeter and tender to touch.


3. Nodules

Large, very inflamed, hard-to-the-touch bumps that appear underneath the skin. They are formed from bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells deep within the skin, making them much harder to treat. They often appear in people who have severe acne.


4. Cysts

The hardest type of inflammatory acne to treat. Cysts are extremely large, pus-filled bump that never comes to a head above the skin. They are formed extremely deep in the skin and are usually very painful to touch.


The tools


For papules and pustules, your best line of defense is staying away from comedogenic products and using an AHA or BHA treatment regularly if you know that your skin is acne-prone. You want to try to stop the whiteheads and blackheads from getting infected, but sometimes this is unavoidable, especially with hormonal acne. Whatever you do, DO NOT POP YOUR PUSTULES. I know it’s tempting, but if you don’t pop it correctly, you can actually cause the pustules to become even more infected, which causes it to spread. Just wait it out. It’s not worth it!


Nodules and cystic acne are very severe forms of inflammatory acne that are not treated by any over-the-counter treatment and should be looked at by a dermatologist who can provide a prescription for you.


Do you suffer from breakouts, and if so, what kind do you usually get? How do you treat your breakouts? Share your tips in the comments below.


Sheryll Donerson got her start as a beauty writer by writing K-beauty reviews for her blog, The Wanderlust Project. These days, she's lifting heavy weights, eating tacos, drinking (too much) coffee and is 1/4 of the beauty podcast, Beauty Beyond Basics (or Triple Bees for short). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @sheryllrenata.




For those that do suffer for extreme acne and are looking for more information this article will speak to you as well scribble io

Great Article. I get the occasional breakouts from time to time. Mostly due to stress, hormones and pollution in the air. I didn't know the importance of using products with AHA or BHA. I just always self treated with witch hazel and a salicylic acid but I've noticed that lately my go to hasn't been working. I am definitely going to be looking into finding a skincare routine that has a AHA for sure thanks to this article.

Great article, really gives all the basic things one needs to know about acne!

Love this article. It’s extremely informative for those that do not suffer from extreme acne and maybe do not feel a need to necessarily see a dermatologist, however, it is recommended for proper treatment. For those that do suffer for extreme acne and are looking for more information this article will speak to you as well. Let’s face it most of us get acne breakouts at least once a month.

As someone who has suffered from all forms of acne at one time or another I relate well to this article. I love learning about skincare and what certain ingredients do. I have cleared up my skin so much to the point where I do not feel the need to cover up my skin with full coverage foundations anymore, however makeup is still my life so I will keep doing it, by doing research on all skin types and how to/ what products makes those types thrive.

This was very helpful to retouch on!


Great Article. I do believe that having a skin care specialist examine the products you are or will be using especially the everyday basic routine. Cleanser, Toner,Moisturizer and a good one to keep your eyes on..Serum. It's important you know the correct serums to apply and when,as the wrong one can do more harm than good!

This is so helpful because I still deal with adult breakouts!

What a great article for all of our clients! Very informative but always a quick and easy read!

Amazing article!!!