What Is the Difference Between Acne and Pimples

What Is Acne or Pimples? When looking at your face, it can be easy to see a couple of zits and think, “great, my acne is flaring”. While frustrating on their own, a couple of individual pimples are not technically considered acne.

Let’s go over the differences that separate acne and pimples from one another in an effort to promote the proper vocabulary that can benefit your overall treatment and make communicating with medical professionals a bit easier.

What Is the Difference Between Acne and Pimples

So, What Separates Acne and Pimples?

The relationship between acne and pimples is a bit convoluted in terms of wording and phrasing but, in general, acne is considered a medical condition while pimples are more of a symptom. You can have pimples without actually having acne but if you have acne, you have pimples.

This means that the two are not mutually exclusive and actually usually go hand in hand; some people just get lucky and only have a few occasional breakouts instead of a full blown acne problem.

Acne is, in a medical sense, a disorder impacting the hair follicles and oil glands of the face. Under the visible layer of skin on your face, there are tons of tiny oil glands producing something known as sebum, which acts as a protectant and moisture layer.

These glands release the sebum to your skin through canals that connect through your hair follicles. When excess sebum and dirt mix, the pores can become clogged, resulting in bacteria becoming trapped and causing infections.

When this happens on occasion in isolated pimples or small clusters, the correct complaint is that you have pimples or are having a small breakout. If you are experiencing frequent, hard to treat breakout series that involves different types of pimples and also has other symptoms, you probably have acne.

The Types of Acne

So, pimples are considered a symptom of acne but there are actually quite a few different types of breakouts that can appear during an acne flare, sometimes in a mixed bag of multiple showing themselves at once.

Blackheads are perhaps one of the least noticeable forms of acne and one of the most frequent. Typically found on the nose, chin, or between the eyebrows, blackheads are formed when a pore is clogged on the skin’s surface and air causes the debris and oil clog to become blackened.

Alternatively, whiteheads are similar to blackheads in that they are near the skin’s surface and generally appear in the same areas but are closed and a bit below the actual surface of the face. Both blackheads and whiteheads can be mild or severe and are generally easy to treat or have extracted.

Papules are small, painful bumps that can be red or pink in color. These can be tender to the touch and are what you imagine when you think of a big, red zit popping out of the side of your face. These can cause scarring if picked at or popped and should be treated topically or orally, never extracted at home.

Pustules are the cousin of the papule and are essentially the same thing except with pus trapped near the surface of the blemish. Like papules, these can cause significant scarring and are especially prone to spreading if popped or picked at.

Nodules are a bit more serious, as they are deep under the skin’s surface and can be really hard to treat with over the counter medications and topical creams. These bumps can be rather large and are prone to intensive scarring if not treated properly. They can also be rather painful and are generally present in more severe acne cases, though they can happen to anyone.

Similar to nodules, cysts are more or less the same aside from cystic bumps usually containing pus. These can be especially painful since the pus causes additional swelling that can lead to extensive inflammation and discomfort.

When you have acne, you can have anyone or any combination of these symptoms at the same time. These breakouts are not mutually exclusive; they can all occur at any time to anyone and can contribute to an official acne diagnosis.

Differing Treatments

Since pimples are generally a symptom of acne’s presence, treating individual spots can be as easy as using a topical acne cream. You can usually clear up individual breakouts with an over the counter medication or face wash; there are tons of spot treatments on the market just for this reason.

Alternatively, acne treatment can be quite an ordeal. For those with particularly stubborn acne, treatments can include some serious drugs like Accutane, which is often viewed as a sort of a last resort due to the potentially dangerous health risks that come with its usage.

This does not mean that the occasional breakout cannot be incredibly frustrating, though. Sometimes a bump will fight to stick around and force you to resort to consulting a medical professional like a dermatologist.

In the end, the health of your skin and general treatment requirements needed to clear up blemishes will vary greatly based on your own unique biochemistry. There is no “one size fits all” treatment available since everyone is so unique in their needs!


In short, pimples are a symptom of acne. Acne is an overall disorder while pimples are individual spots that can occur on their own or as a part of a larger acne problem. Treatments are similar but also vary greatly since everyone is unique and needs different things to achieve and maintain their skin at a healthy level.

What causes pimples in adults?

With teenagers, hormones are commonly blamed for acne’s presence. As they pass through puberty, their hormonal levels go nuts, resulting in increased oil production, which creates a breeding ground for bacteria and a higher chance of clogged pores forming.

This makes for a perfect storm, often leading to breakouts. In adults, though, the turbulent time that is puberty has already passed so suddenly developing acne can be a bit jarring.

At its core, adult acne is caused by the exact same factors that plague teenagers: dirt and overproduction of oil. When you are an adult, you are exposed to tons of different stimuli that likely varies from what you experienced as a teenager.

Birth control pills, stress, changes in homelife, dietary changes (especially common in college kids experiencing the “freshman fifteen” due to being in complete control of their food choices for the first time), and a host of other factors can all cause acne formation.

Additionally, some people are just predisposed to form adult acne. If your parents had it, you probably will too.

The best thing you can do is take preventative measures and take good care of your skin. Always wash your face after any sweat inducing activity and try to keep yourself in generally good health.

What is the significance of differentiating between acne and pimples?

For a lot of people, there is no real significance but those seeking out medical treatment for acne or looking to treat their breakouts at home, it is a good idea to have a fairly well researched understanding of your skin.

Going into your treatment with a good grasp of the terminology surrounding your concerns gives you a leg up on your acne, increasing your chances of successfully remedying the issue and returning your skin to a healthy state.

Plus, understanding more about acne can help prevent wasting money on questionable products or risking damage from unsafe do it yourself treatments, too!