June is Acne Awareness Month—and acne sufferers, take heart. You aren’t the only one experiencing breakouts these days. While teenage acne is, of course, common, it’s more shocking to hear that 54 percent of women age 25 and older experience facial acne. And according to the International Dermal Institute, clinical studies show that between 40 and 55 percent of the adult population are diagnosed with low-grade, persistent acne and/or oily skin at some point.
Thankfully, treatments are readily available. The hardest part may be identifying the types of products and medications that work best for your skin. To help, we’ve enlisted top dermatologists to put together a guide to common types of acne and the best options for treatment. Clear skin, here you come.
What commonly causes acne?
While it’s clear that more adults are breaking out these days, it’s not always clear what is causing the surge in adult acne. “Acne can be caused by a wide range of things,” says Dr. Paul Lorenc, board-certified aesthetic plastic surgeon in New York City. “Hormonal acne is more common in women and happens during puberty. There’s also acne caused by rosacea, stress, certain medications and bad hygiene.”
Scientifically speaking, there’s a lot going on underneath the skin that leads to breakouts, adds Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami. “Basically, the ‘pores’ in our skin are lined by skin cells called keratinocytes. In normal skin, those keratinocytes naturally slough out of the pore easily. However, in acne, the keratocytes become very sticky and they build up in the lining of the pore to form a pimple,” she explains. “This looks like a whitehead or blackhead. Many things can cause the lining of the pore to get sticky.”
Most commonly, hormones are the culprit, Lloyd says. That’s why you’ll likely notice breakouts around your monthly cycle. “As the lining of the pore becomes more sticky, oil and bacteria build up inside of the pore. This is when you see papules and cysts under the skin.”
Common types of acne and how to identify it
If you’re hoping to treat breakouts, you’ll first need to identify the “type” of acne you’re suffering from.
“The most common way to categorize acne is inflammatory vs. non-inflammatory,” explains Lloyd. The difference will likely be obvious. “Non-inflammatory acne has no significant redness or inflammation—you’ll see whiteheads and blackheads. With inflammatory acne, papules, pustules, nodules and cysts are present. Nodules and cysts are seen in more severe acne.”
Lloyd says the easiest way to check for inflammatory acne is to look for the following:
Papules: Usually appear as pink or red bumps, varying in size. There’s no fluid inside of these and they are usually painless, unless you irritate them.
Pustules: This type of acne goes deeper into the skin than papules. They appear yellow or white and contain pus.
Nodules: Appear as large, painful bumps filled with blood or pus.
Cysts: Appear as red bumps that contain pus. This is the most severe form of acne and can be quite irritating.
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