Pimples vs. Acne: What's the Difference?

Zits. Pimples. Breakouts. Acne. None of these words spark any particular joy when brought up and discussed. We 100% support movements like acne positivity, and we also like sharing knowledge about concerns that affect skin. We want you to be armed with the knowledge to make the best skin care choices for your face and body.

Whether you’re looking to get rid of mild acne, treat hormonal breakouts, or embrace what you've currently got goin’ on, it’s important to understand a few things about acne and breakouts:

  • What causes a pimple to form in the first place?
  • What’s the difference between a pimple, a breakout, acne, and cystic acne?
  • What can you do everyday to prevent future breakouts?

Once you can identify what the actual concern is, it makes it way easier to find an effective treatment.

How Pimples Form

There are three things that must be present for any blemish/pimple to form:

  1. Dead skin cells. These build up on the surface (keratin) layer of the skin. Some of these dead skin cells can block the pore, causing a plug, or clog.
  2. Excess oil. Hormones, diet, stress, and genetics can all cause your sebaceous gland to produce excess oil. This oil can cause dead skin cells to stick to the surface of the skin, creating a breeding ground for bacteria. If a pore is clogged with dead skin cells, this oil also becomes trapped below the surface of the skin.
  3. P. Acnes bacteria. When excess oil is on the surface of the skin, or trapped in a clogged pore, a specific type of bacteria (P. Acnes) grows. This causes the area to become inflamed and pus is created

When these three factors come together, they form a pimple, usually characterized by redness, inflamed skin, and a white, pus-filled cap covering the pore.

(And if you’re interested in seeing all sorts of pimples, blackheads, cysts, etc. getting taken care of, we’ll happily direct you to Dr. Pimple Popper; not for the squeamish!)


Pimples, Whiteheads, Blackheads, Acne, and Cysts; How to Spot the Difference

Let’s break down the different types of pimples and how to identify them:

  1. Pimple - a small pustule on the skin's surface. Pimples develop when sebaceous glands, or oil glands, become clogged and infected, leading to swollen, red acne lesions filled with pus (as described in the above section). Pimples are also called zits, or spots (if you’re in the UK).
  2. Whitehead - a comedo covered by a layer of skin. Both whiteheads and blackheads are technically known as comedones, which form when skin cells and oil become trapped in a pore.
  3. Blackhead - a comedo that has been exposed to the air. The oxidation of oil and skin cells causes it to darken in color. Learn more about whiteheads vs. blackheads.
  4. Acne (Acne Vulgaris) - persistent and recurring pimples/blemishes that are prevalent on the face, neck, chest, and/or back. There can be different types of acne as well, and for persistent or severe cases of acne, it is recommended you visit a board-certified dermatologist to be treated with acne medication.
  5. Cysts - painful, pus-filled lumps deep under the surface of the skin. DO NOT try and remove/pop cystic acne at home, always see a professional.

What’s Causing Your Acne?

Contrary to what your mother may have told you, pimples and acne are not affected by greasy foods. So be happy knowing your french fries aren’t breaking you out. Below is what can trigger acne:

1. Hormones - when hormone levels change, acne can be exacerbated. Teenagers, pregnant women, and women in various stages of life can expect increased sebum production due to hormonal changes, which can lead to inflammatory acne. Many women are very familiar with at least one red bump popping up every month, coinciding with their menstrual cycle. Many women have found effective treatment through oral contraceptives that help reduce the production of sebum, however, treating acne in female patients can have its challenges and must be tailored to each woman [1.]

2. Genetics - if your parents had acne, there is a higher likelihood you will experience acne.

3. Certain medications - Examples include drugs containing corticosteroids, testosterone or lithium.

4. Diet - yes, we mentioned greasy foods NOT causing acne, but certain studies have shown that milk and certain carbs and sugars do trigger acne. And chocolate? The jury is still out. Diets high in fiber, and foods that limit inflammation are recommended for acneic skin.

5. Stress - stress isn’t shown to CAUSE acne, but if a person is experiencing acne, stress can make it worse.

Everyday Tips to Prevent Breakouts

Before we get in to what skincare ingredients can help acne, here are some tips to prevent future breakouts:

1. Keep your screen clean: cell phones can carry a lot of bacteria. Avoid pressing them against your face (same goes for regular phones) and clean your phone regularly

2. Clean your makeup brushes: dust, oil, and debris build up on makeup brushes, causing people to reapply all that on their face over and over. Make it a habit to deep clean makeup brushes every 3-4 weeks.

3. Don’t pick! It’s hard, but don’t pop or pick current pimples. It causes acne scars and also spreads bacteria on the face, causing more breakouts.

Treating acne, blemishes, and acne scars

There are always a million hot new acne treatments on the market, from pore strips and hydrocolloid patches to chemical peels, but some acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, have been found to be very effective in acne treatment. Consult a dermatologist on all treatment options, especially when it comes to severe acne. Based on your skin condition, your dermatologist might suggest prescription medication like oral antibiotics or topical medications like a topical retinoid or topical antibiotics.

When it comes to acne scars, microneedling has been found to initiate wound healing and collagen production, improving the appearance of acne scars. Furthermore, microneedling helps topical products and serums to absorb efficiently [2.] We suggest a combination of microneedling and hyaluronic acid.


Learn more about ingredients to treat acne here.

At Cosmedica Skincare, we just want you to feel good in your skin. Hopefully this article helped educate you a bit more on pimples and acne.

And remember… don’t pick!


I am in my 30’s and suddenly battling more acne than a teenager Dermalmd Acne Serum has overnight almost gotten rid of pimples I’ve been battling for months!

Amelie January 04, 2022

Hello. Pimples are the same as acne. In fact, acne is an umbrella term which includes blackheads, whiteheads, papules and pustules (which is what people call pimple), nodules and cysts. “Pimple” is a non-medical and unclearly defined term for the scientific term, “acne”.

Dr. P July 19, 2020

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