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




This was a great article! I learned so much :)


A spot-on article (no pun intended) and as a middle-aged woman, who still experiences the &*^%$!! occasional breakout, I created small scars near my hairline just above my cheekbones, because I could not bear to "wait it out." Unfortunately, if you too find yourself wanting the offending blackhead or whitehead, or etc, off your face, picking it off is NEVER a good idea. At the very minimum, if you are impatient at least find a top grade extraction tool, to assist with removing the head and hopefully contents, and then apply product to heal from within.


Thank you for this. The hardest part is being an adult with a baby face and acne. Also, being an Esthetician when I break out I feel takes away from my skills. Then people I know make comments. Firstly, I'm a diabetic. I have 3 biological children. My oldest is 8, youngest are 1 year and a 5 month old. So, Hormonal acne due to stress, glucose control, pregnancies/birth, breastfeeding, childrearing, and now Quarantine. 😑 I also have been suffering from a slight case of Rosacea since I was a teen. Recipe for skin disaster much? I get... Read more


This was a really good article, I could actually relate to it. In my early to late teens, because of my combination oily skin type, I had a pencil line of blackheads that lived in my cheek area. I was green on the proper steps to take. So, I tackled it back then with Noxzema, but now that I value my skin and the 3-step routine I've created, adding our COSRX BHA is a great go to, keeping my skin beautiful and blackhead free. Thank you for these pointers.

-Ni Lundan


Such amazing information! Studying skin closely in cosmetology school and the easy to use products to help us and what to avoid is the best tool to have!


This is such important advice and a great breakdown of the different types of acne. They are not all the same! Also important to remember that more severe forms of acne, such as cystic acne, should be treated by a dermatologist. Other forms of acne respond great to lifestyle changes and skincare!!!

In addition to treating your acne with some of the products suggested above, make sure you have a professional examine ALL the products that come in contact with your face such as cleansers, toners, moisturizers, etc. Also keep your phones and brushes sanitized and pillow cases clean! It... Read more


Used to have every type of acne on my face. you name I have it. It is under control now but I still get acne when I ate something wrong and under stress. People said acne will go away after 30 but nope mine is still here to stay with me.


I thought for sure hormonal acne was supposed to be gone by 40, but nope, I still have it. Maybe it's because I didn't start getting any kind of breakouts until my late 20s???


that never breakouts after 30 is just a fat dream since I still have breakouts. I got my breakouts since teenagers and the horror of damaging my skin with those DIY vinegar and harsh facial scrub.


I definitely relate, yuerain! I still have breakouts after 30. Some of us are just lucky, I guess . There is hope though! Let me know if I can help in any way.


Queen of whiteheads and comedones here ESPECIALLY post hair removal (threading etc) I jumped into the world of BHAs and that has made a huge difference but I’m nervous about where to start with AHAs and the whole double acid exfoliant process. I’ve been reading a lot though so I’m thinking I’ll start soon!


When I first started AHAs, I was worried, too, especially because I develop dark spots if I just blink. I think the COSRX AHA is a great place to start because it's super gentle. I also only use it on my T-zone where I'm less prone to hyperpigmentation but more prone to breakouts. I'm now using AHA/BHA pads alternating with the much stronger Biologique Recherche since it's winter and my skin can handle it.


I will occasionally get a pustule or two, but that type of acne is mostly in check for me. Lately I have been getting raised, sometimes itchy papules - not quire sure of the cause.

Since it's so uncommon for me, my main focus has been sebaceous filaments - I feel like they can be seen from space, but that's just me with my 5x magnifying mirror that's used for my makeup application!


As someone who's been on Accutane three (!!!) times, I definitely feel your pain.

Fortunately, Accutane stopped the cysts, so now I just have to deal with whiteheads and comedones once a month. Ahhhhh hormonal acne.

Currently, I alternate between differin gel and stridex pads to keep the face demons at bay.

Extras include sheet masks with tea tree, centella, chamomile, or any other soothing/calming ingredients.


I can't live without tea tree and centella to calm my breakouts as well! I also use AHA in the winter and BHA in the summer to help control the oil and PIH. I've been thinking of Differin now that it's available over the counter. Does it dry your skin out @xomarthamarie?

I also started spearmint supplements a year ago after a study came out showing it can help reduce the severity and frequency of breakouts. It took about 6 months but I no longer have hormonal cysts once a month. At most, I have a red bump that either dies... Read more

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