Papules vs. Pustules: What's the Difference?

When you’re staring at a pimple in the magnifying mirror — trying to talk yourself out of popping it, chances are you’re not thinking about what type of blemish it is. But figuring out what kind of acne you’re dealing with is key when it comes to both treatment and prevention.

Papules and pustules are two of the most common types of pimples — but how can you tell the difference between them? We’ve got the lowdown on distinguishing between these two, and the best way to treat them.

The difference between an acne papule and acne pustule

What are the different types of pimples?

Most people don’t give a lot of thought to the type of acne they’re experiencing. But differentiating between the various types is important — because understanding the cause leads to better treatment. Remember that there are two main types of acne: 

  • Non-inflammatory: occurs when pores become clogged with sebum and dead skin, creating either open comedones (blackheads) or closed comedones (whiteheads).
  • Inflammatory: when comedones become infected with P. acnes bacteria (common on skin’s surface), inciting an inflammatory response that creates papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.

What is a papule?

As we just learned, papules are a type of inflammatory acne that originates in the epidermis — the outer layer of the skin. Acne bacteria spreads from the inside of the follicle to the surrounding skin, causing irritation and swelling. Papules have the following characteristics:

  • Raised bumps
  • Closed pore (skin is covering)
  • Small size (typically less than 5mm)
  • Inflamed skin on/around bump (may be pink/red)
  • Typically painful

Occasional papules are considered to be mild acne, whereas frequent clusters of papules may be classified as moderate or severe acne.

What is a pustule?

Also an inflammatory pimple found in the epidermis, a pustule is essentially a papule that’s come to a head — that is, formed a white or yellowish point of pus at the center. This is a consequence of the body’s natural immune response: white blood cells rush in to fight the P. acnes infection. As those white immune cells die, they turn into pus and begin to protrude from the pore.

Acne pustules are characterized by:

  • Raised bumps with a white/yellowish center
  • Closed or open pore
  • Small size (typically less than 5mm)
  • Inflamed skin on/around bump (may be pink/red)
  • Typically painful

Just like papules, frequent clusters of pustules may be considered moderate to severe acne.

Salicylic Acid Cleanser, BP Lotion, Retinol Serum, Facial Moisturizer Acne System by SLMD Skincare

What’s the best way to treat acne papules and pustules?

If you’ve got inflammatory acne papules and pustules, that means you have non-inflammatory acne, too (even if it’s not that noticeable). This is because all acne starts with clogged pores (comedones) and may or may not progress to the point of inflammation.

In order to treat and prevent both papules and pustules, you need ingredients that address both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne, like:

For a comprehensive solution, try SLMD Skincare Acne System: a simple, 3-step regimen used twice daily to manage acne at every stage.

For those who have trouble with benzoyl peroxide and/or retinol, try Sensitive Skin Acne System instead.

SLMD Skincare Spot Check Acne Patches

Is it OK to pop an acne papule or pustule?

Dr. Pimple Popper fans probably already know the answer to this question: picking, squeezing, poking at, or popping pimples can lead to irritation, bacterial spread (read: more pimples!) and even permanent scarring.

Following a consistent acne regimen will help treat and prevent papules and pustules. But when they do pop up, the best way to get rid of individual pimples is to use a spot treatment. Dr. Lee’s favorites include:

  • Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment: this roll-on maximum strength formula is great for clearing out comedones.
  • BP Spot Treatment: formulated with maximum strength benzoyl peroxide to kill acne bacteria and calm inflammation.
  • Spot Check: these ultra-transparent patches contain potent salicylic acid to treat pimples and keep you from picking or popping.

Dr. Lee’s last word

Papules and pustules are very common types of inflammatory acne that I see a lot of in my practice. I typically tell patients to follow a consistent skincare routine like my Acne System, which contains salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinol to keep pores clear and eliminate that acne bacteria.

—Dr. Sandra Lee

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