ACNE GLOSSARY: Typical acne terms explained

ACNE GLOSSARY: Typical acne terms explained


According to the British Skin Foundation, approximately 85% of people between the ages of 12 and 24 experience some form of acne. But do you know your papules from your pustules? We’ve compiled a glossary of typical acne terms to help educate and build awareness of this common skin condition.


Acne Vulgaris is the medical name given to common acne, often characterised by the presence of blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of pimples on the skin. Acne Vulgaris can occur on the face, chest, shoulders and back. Not only can it affect teenagers, adults can also suffer breakouts as they experience hormonal changes. It is thought that 25% of adult men and 50% of adult women will experience acne at some point.

Normal sebum (oil) secretions help protect the hair follicles and skin. However, over-production of sebum and skin cells can cause the pores to become plugged. This can create optimal conditions for the overgrowth of an anaerobic bacterium normally found on the skin.


A comedo is a hair follicle that has become clogged with sebum (oil) and keratin (skin debris). Comedones (plural of comedo) can develop into bumps called whiteheads and blackheads. TIP: Look for products labelled ‘non-comedogenic’ as there are considered less likely to clog the pores.


Blackheads are comedones that are open at the surface of the skin. They are filled with excess sebum and skin debris. The sebum’s reaction to air (oxidation) causes the black colour.


Unlike blackheads, whiteheads are comedones that stay closed at the surface of the skin. They are very similar to black heads but have not been exposed to oxidation.


Papules are comedones that become irritated, forming small red bumps on the skin. Papules occur when the wall of a hair follicle breaks and caves in – the visible inflammation is due to white blood cells rushing in. They can be painful to the touch. Picking or squeezing can exacerbate the inflammation and can eventually lead to scarring. A large number of papules may be indicative of moderate to severe acne.


Pustules are another kind of inflamed pimple. They are similar to a whitehead in appearance and have a red ring around the bump. As the name suggests they are filled with white or yellow pus. Picking and squeezing can again lead to further inflammation and scarring.


Nodules are larger than typical pimple bumps, and they look like raised ovals covered by skin. They are deep within the skin and are more painful than milder forms of acne. Nodules can last for months at a time meaning they are more likely to injure the skin and create scarring.

Individuals should seek treatment from a dermatologist as early as possible, as they may require treatment with prescription products, rather than over-the-counter products that may not be powerful enough.


Cysts are large pus-filled lesions that look similar to boils. Cysts occur when the inflammation leads to a rupture of the hair follicles, releasing matter that triggers wider inflammation. Like nodules, cysts can be very painful and should be treated by a dermatologist as soon as possible to reduce the risk of scarring.


People with severe nodulocystic acne have multiple inflamed cysts and nodules. The acne may turn deep red or purple and is likely to create scarring. Early treatment is recommended to reduce the injury to the skin and prevent scars. It may sometimes be necessary to inject nodules & cysts with corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.


This is one of the most severe forms of acne. It involves many inflamed nodules that are connected under the skin to other nodules. It can affect the neck, chest, arms and buttocks. This type of acne is often more common in men and can often cause scars. Timely treatment is essential.


Acne mechanica typically formed as a result of heat, friction and pressure against the skin. Often associated with athletes as it can develop as a result of wearing sports gear such as helmets or baseball caps. Wearing absorbent material under sports equipment; and showering after exercise to remove excess sweat can help reduce the problem.


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