Acne vs. pimples: What’s the difference?

Acne vs. pimples: What’s the difference?

The terms "acne" and "pimples" are often used interchangeably, so it's hard to differentiate them at times. While pimples are a symptom of acne, their appearances can be similar — plus specific causes and treatments vary. 

Despite various myths, acne isn't caused by poor hygiene, and outbreaks can occur at any age. Understanding what causes acne and pimples can help you properly treat skin blemishes.

 Let's look at both to see where the differences and similarities lie.

What is acne?

Acne is a skin condition that occurs when oil, dead skin, and bacteria congest your pores. Pilosebaceous units (PSUs) produce necessary oils for the skin and then release them through hair follicles. However, if too much oil is created, it can clog the hair follicle causing lesions on the skin. 

 For most people, acne appears during their teenage years and clears up by their twenties or thirties. Still, acne outbreaks can occur any time there is an increase in androgen hormones. These increases can be brought on by puberty, pregnancy, or when you start and stop birth control.

Acne outbreaks can occur on the face, back, chest, and shoulders, and consist of various skin abrasions, leaving the affected area bumpy, red, and sometimes painful. 

Despite the myths, acne is not caused by poor hygiene, sweat, or diet. Instead, the abrasions are caused by the oils and dead skin naturally produced by the body. These excess oils create a variety of pimples (papules and pustules), nodules, cysts, and blackheads, which can also appear independently from acne.

Here's a breakdown of different types of pimples that can form:

  • Papules: small pink bumps that may feel warm or be sensitive to touch.
  • Pustules: pus-filled lesions, often appearing as white-capped bumps on the skin.
  • Nodules: large, painful bumps deep in the skin that feel hard when touched.
  • Cysts: painful pus-filled lesions. Unlike pustules, they form deeper under the skin and are often harder to treat.
  • Whiteheads: small bumps that appear when pores become clogged with excess oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells. 
  • Blackheads: small bumps that occur when the pore remains open.

 Hormones are one of the biggest contributing factors to acne or pimples. Still, other factors can contribute to an outbreak. 

For example, acne worsens during menstrual cycles and when exposed to oil from moisturizers and cosmetics or environmental irritants like pollution, allergens, and humidity. In addition, stress has been known to cause flare-ups as well.

What are Pimples?

Though pimples are a symptom of acne, their root causes are separate and can occur independently of each other. 

Anyone can get pimples when clogged skin pores become infected with bacteria. In addition, pimples can be caused by environmental factors, sweat, or oils from touching the affected skin. While pimples are not entirely avoidable, keeping your skin clean and avoiding irritants reduces the chances of a pimple popping up.

Pimples are especially common on the face and other areas of the body that regularly come in contact with skin or restrictive clothing. For example, resting your face in your hands or touching and picking your skin can easily cause pimples as repeated contact transfers oils from your hands to your face. 

Armpits and other joints are susceptible to pimples for the same reason. Restrictive or tight clothing like athletic wear and undergarments can cause irritants to become trapped in the skin along elastic band lines and other areas where fabric is tight against the skin.

There are two different types of pimples — papules and pustules. Papules are pimples that burst under the skin and release bacteria into the surrounding tissue, causing the skin to look red. 

However, papules often don't break the skin and attempting to pop them only pushes the bacteria deeper into the pores. 

Pustules are pus-filled pimples that reach deeper under into pores than papules but burst above the skin, appearing with a white cap in the center when ready.


Acne vs. Pimples

Most people will experience pimples from time to time. Still, acne is a recurring situation caused by hormonal levels rather than outside irritants. 

Acne is marked by persistent, widespread abrasions that flare up alongside hormonal changes and persists over time. The likelihood of acne is largely based on genetics and how much androgen your body produces. 

Overall, it's essential to understand that acne can cause pimples, but all pimples don't equate to acne. Pimples are one of acne's symptoms but can appear on their own and usually go away in a few days. However, anyone can get pimples — especially when it comes to sweat, oil, or dirt clogged within your pores.

Acne flare-ups are treatable and may come and go. Still, acne is not preventable; an outbreak can occur any time that androgen hormones increase. The good news is that most pimples can be prevented by avoiding tight clothing, not touching your face, and practicing good hygiene. 

How to Treat Acne and Avoid Pimples

Acne is treatable but not preventable because genetics can play a factor. Whether or not family members have had acne can indicate your own chances. You can treat the symptoms of acne, such as pimples and blackheads, by cleaning your skin gently, avoiding touching the acne-covered parts of your skin, and staying out of the sun.  

Only use products designed to be gentle on the skin and avoid oil-based products.

While there are methods to help treat the symptoms of acne, there is no known way of preventing outbreaks. 

Common treatments for acne and pimples include topical and oral medications and laser and light therapies in extreme cases. Acne doesn't pose any long-term health risks but can leave scarring on skin tissue.

Final Thoughts 

The biggest takeaway here is to avoid picking at, squeezing, or touching any blemishes! The oil and germs from your hands can worsen acne. Plus, squeezing blemishes can push pus and other clogged substances further into your skin — creating scars that are even harder to get rid of. 


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