6th June 2020

Acne 101: Different Types of Acne Explained

Last Modified: August 3, 2022

We might associate acne with those awkward teenage years, but the condition affects a lot of adults too.

It can be difficult to know where to start when dealing with acne since there are various types of adult acne. There are also various grades of acne.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, don't worry. We'll explain everything you need to know about adult acne.

Types of Acne

There are three different forms of acne. We've outlined them all here, so you can find out about each of them below.

Comedonal Acne

When you think of acne, this is probably what you'll imagine. Comedonal acne presents itself as small bumps on your skin, which we often refer to as 'blackheads' and 'whiteheads'. They occur when your pores get clogged up by dead skin cells and oil.

There are slight differences between blackheads and whiteheads to bear in mind. Blackheads have open comedones, whereas whiteheads have closed comedones. On a blackhead, the pore's surface is open, whereas on a whitehead, the pore is completely closed.

Cystic Acne

This involves bumps under the surface of the skin and they have no head. Cystic acne often occurs in people with particularly oily skin, as oil, dirt and dead skin all get stuck in pores.

Cystic acne is one of the more painful types of adult acne and can also cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which leaves scars. As a result, it's important to treat cystic acne promptly. 

Inflammatory Acne

Inflammatory acne isn't completely different from comedonal acne, but it involves more bacteria. Essentially, the mixture clogging your pores combines with bacteria, causing infections which leads to swelling and, as the name suggests, inflammation.

This type of acne manifests in two different ways. Pustules are red and filled with white pus, and they're created when clogged pores get infected. As they contain bacteria, popping them isn't recommended - it can cause the acne to spread.

Moving on to papules, the main difference here is that they don't contain any pus. Despite this, however, they do contain bacteria so topical acne medication is ideal.

Grades of Acne

As well as giving an overview of the different types of adult acne, it's worth looking at the grades of acne too. There are three grades to remember, so we've explained them below.


The less serious form of acne. For acne to be mild, you should have fewer than 20 comedones and 15 lesions. This is easier to treat and the least serious form.


Moderate acne is more widespread than its mild counterpart. If you have moderate acne, you'll have between 20 and 100 comedones and 15 and 50 lesions.


The criteria for severe acne is a little more complex. As well as having over 100 comedones and 50 lesions, your dermatologist will also consider whether you have any cystic lesions. To be categorised as severe acne, your acne must incorporate at least five pseudocysts.

Managing My Acne

Dealing with your acne will be different depending on the types and grades of acne you are affected by. For comedonal acne, you can try over-the-counter medications containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

These medications can also help in treating inflammatory acne, although it's also worth using a daily cleansing solution to help improve your skin. Meanwhile, if you have cystic acne or acne that's more severe, your best bet is to leave it to a dermatologist, although you can also try other methods such as microneedling.

Hopefully, you now feel more confident in managing acne. If you're looking for more advice, feel free to check out our other posts or contact us.

Post Reviewed by: Dr Baldeep Farmah
Medically Reviewed on: 6th June 2020
Dr Baldeep Farmah is the Medical Director and lead Doctor of Dr Aesthetica, a Medical Aesthetic Clinic.

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