Acne vs. pimples: What’s the difference?

Acne vs. pimples: What’s the difference?

The terms “acne” and “pimples” are often used interchangeably and can sometimes be hard to differentiate. While pimples are a symptom of acne, and their appearances can be similar, the specific causes and treatments vary between the two. Despite the various myths, acne is not caused by poor hygiene and outbreaks can occur at any age. Understanding what causes acne and pimples can help identify and properly treat skin blemishes.

What is acne?

Acne is a bacterial disease that appears when oil and dead skin clog hair follicles underneath the skin. Pilosebaceous units (PSUs) produce necessary oils for the skin then release them through hair follicles. If too much oil is produced, 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, but an acne outbreak can occur any time there is an increase in androgen hormones. Increases can be brought on by puberty, pregnancy, or when starting and stopping birth control.

Outbreaks of acne can occur on the face, back, chest, and shoulders, and consist of various types of skin abrasions, leaving the affected area bumpy, red, and sometimes painful. Despite the myths, acne is not caused by poor hygiene, sweat, or diet. The abrasions are instead caused by the oils and dead skin naturally produced by the body. Excess oils then create a variety of abrasions such as pimples (papules and pustules), nodules, cysts, and blackheads, which can also appear independently from acne.

  • 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. They often feel hard when touched.
  • Cysts: painful pus-filled lesions. Unlike pustules, they form deeper under the skin and are often harder to treat.

Blackheads and Whiteheads: small bumps that appear when pores become clogged with excess oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells. Blackheads occur when the pore remains open, while whiteheads occur when the pore closes over the irritants.

Hormones are mainly responsible for acne, but other factors can contribute to causing or worsening an outbreak. Acne tends to worsen during menstrual cycles, and when exposed to oil from moisturizers and cosmetics, or environmental irritants like pollution, allergens, and humidity. 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, which occur when clogged skin pores become infected with bacteria. Pimples can be caused by environmental factors, sweat, or oils from touching the affected skin. While not entirely avoidable, keeping your skin clean, and avoiding irritants can reduce the chances of a pimple popping up.

Pimples are especially common on the face, and on other areas of the body that regularly come in contact with skin, or restrictive clothing. Resting your face in your hands, or otherwise 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 such as 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, papule, and pustule. Papules are pimples that burst under the skin and release bacteria into the surrounding tissue, causing the skin to look red. Papules often don’t break the skin and attempting to pop it 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 instead, appearing with a white cap in the center when ready.

How to spot the differences between acne and pimples

Most people will experience pimples from time to time, but acne is a recurring disease 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 getting acne is largely based on genetics, and how much androgen your body produces. 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. Anyone can get pimples, and are commonly caused by sweat, oil, or dirt getting clogged in your pores.

Acne flare-ups are treatable and may come and go, but acne is not preventable and an outbreak can occur at any time that androgen hormones increase. Though it may be more difficult to avoid environmental factors such as humidity and pollution, most pimples can be prevented by avoiding tight clothing and touching your face, and practicing good hygiene.

How to treat acne and avoid pimples

Acne is treatable, but not preventable. Genetics can play a factor, whether or not family members have or 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 that are 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, as well as laser and light therapies in extreme cases. Acne doesn’t pose any health risks long term but can leave scarring on skin tissue.

Avoid picking at, squeezing, or touching any blemishes. Oil from your hands can worsen acne, and squeezing blemishes can push pus and other clogged substances further into your skin. Be sure to only use gentle products on areas of skin with acne, as harsh fabrics like loofahs can exacerbate scarring. Try avoiding wearing tight fabric on the area, such as headgear, sports helmets, backpacks, tight clothing such as athletic uniforms or undergarments.


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