Acne, Explained in Less Than 2 Minutes

Here’s what’s going on beneath that red bump.

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When acne occurs in teens and “tweens,” most people brush it off as puberty and don’t ask many more questions. But when it happens in adults, many people will strain their brains to figure out why these pimples are popping up so, so long after puberty—and what they can do about it.

The skin is peppered with tiny openings called pores, through which the skin sheds dead skin cells. Deep in the pore, you might find normal and healthy things like hair follicles, an accumulation of dead skin cells, bacteria, and the sebaceous gland.

The sebaceous gland is key here: This gland produces sebum oil, the natural moisturizer your body needs to keep the hair shiny and the skin from drying out, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). That’s all well and good—usually.

Clogged Pores and Acne

Your free and natural moisturizer, however, can turn against you. Sometimes, the body starts producing too much sebum oil, and it makes those dead skin cells in the pores clump together, and clog the pore. Why the overproduction? A couple things can prompt this: dry or irritated skin, or hormonal changes (such as throughout the menstrual cycle or during puberty).

Then, there’s bacteria. P. acnes is a type of bacteria that lives on everyone’s skin, but if it sneaks into a clogged pore, it can multiply quickly in that dark, warm pore. Bacteria overgrowth always invites the immune system, and when immune cells attack, inflammation follows. Cue the warm, swollen, sensitive pimple.

Types of Pimples

Acne doesn’t always look the same, even if they start from similar causes. Here are six key types of acne you might experience:

  • Whiteheads are clogged pores that close over and form a white bump.

  • Blackheads are clogged pores that remain open and look like a tiny dark spot.

  • Papules are clogged pores that become so irritated that their walls break and the pimple becomes bigger. They are hard when you touch them.

  • Pustules are similar to papules, but instead of being hard, they look more like a blister with a yellowish pus.

  • Nodules are clogged pores with severe inflammation that goes deep into your skin, so they are the most painful. Like papules, nodules are very hard to the touch.

  • Cysts are similar to nodules, but instead of being hard, they are softer and have pus.

Acne accurately comes from the Greek word for facial eruption (you know, like a volcano on your skin). While acne is much less dangerous than an active volcano, it can have serious effects on your quality of life. Persistent acne is linked to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, according to AAD. Plus, all types of acne can leave scars, and nodules and cysts can be very painful.

For these reasons, treating acne isn’t merely cosmetic. A dermatologist can help treat acne by recommending lifestyle habits to prevent acne, effective cleansers for your skin type, and possibly medications like birth control.