Acne types & best treatments cheat sheet

Acne is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition that affects many people throughout their lifetime, not just during teenage years! Identifying the type of acne you have is important to determine the best products to use. You may experience different types of acne at different points in your life or have multiple types of acne at the same time. 

Acne is divided into 2 categories: inflammatory and non-inflammatory. 


Non-inflammatory acne refers to blackheads (also called open comedones) and whiteheads (also called closed comedones). As the name suggests, this type of acne doesn’t cause swelling, redness or pus. Both blackheads and whiteheads occur when your pore is blocked by oil and dead skin cells. With whiteheads, the opening to the pore is blocked and they look like small, flesh-colored bumps. By contrast, with blackheads, the opening to the pore is exposed to air, causing oxidation which creates the identifying black head. Because blackheads are open, they are typically easier to extract than whiteheads. 

Salicylic acid works well for this type of acne, particularly blackheads, because it is oil-soluble. You can find salicylic acid in cleansers, toners, serums, spot treatments, masks and even moisturizers. Mandelic acid is another great option – especially if you have dry, sensitive skin or are new to exfoliating – as its large molecular size allows for slower and gentler penetration. Our Balancing Act Serum has both salicylic and mandelic acid and is formulated for all skin types. (For more info about the differences between exfoliating acids, check out this guide). Finally, retinoids are also an effective way to combat non-inflammatory acne and prevent the formation of new clogged pores. 


Inflammatory acne refers to papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. These types of acne are also caused by oil and dead skin cells, in addition to bacteria. 

When a pore becomes too clogged, the walls can rupture, leading to an inflammatory response. Papules are red bumps with no visible center or head. Pustules are red bumps with visible pus. The pus is due to white blood cells, which your body sends to the area to fight infection. Papules and pustules are typically what we think of when we think of pimples!

Nodules and cysts are also red, swollen and inflamed, but are much deeper below the skin and often very painful to the touch. 

Treating inflammatory acne often requires a combination of topical treatments. As with all acne, retinoids and exfoliating acids, such as salicylic acid and mandelic acid, are great options. In addition, benzoyl peroxide is particularly effective at killing bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide shouldn’t be used at the same time as retinoids and may be drying, so try a wash off product like a cleanser if you use it with retinoids. Pimple patches are also your best friend – even if there is no visible head, they can be helpful to discourage picking and prevent friction. Icing works wonderfully to help relieve swelling and reduce discomfort at home. 

No matter the product you are using or type of acne you’re treating, it’s important to remember that hydration and a strong skin barrier are keys to success. It can be easy to overdo it and strip your skin when using actives, so supplement with plenty of hydrators, skin soothers and reparative ingredients. Try not to use more than one active at a time, unless advised by your doctor and esthetician. Finally, don’t rush to increase your frequency of use – slow and steady wins the race!