I hope this glossary of acne terminology will help you familiarize yourself with some of the terms used in our articles as well as terms used by your dermatologist. It may also help you to review the types of acne and skin acne treatments available.
Accutane – Powerful drug derived from vitamin A that is used in the treatment of severe acne. The generic name is isotretinoin. If taken during pregnancy, it’s highly likely to cause severe birth defects. But for severe types of acne, Accutane is definitely the most effective medication.
Acne – Adult Onset – Overwhelmingly a condition that affects females, this type of acne turns up after the age of 18. It can crop up in women’s 20s, 30s, or even later in life through menopause. It is sometimes referred to as female adult acne or post-adolescent acne.
Acne – Comedonal – Acne that is mostly plugged pores with little or no inflammation, red bumps or cysts. Of all the types of acne, this is usually the easiest to treat.
Acne – Inflammatory – In this type of acne, papules (small red bumps), pustules, and small tender nodules are predominant. Permanent scarring can occasionally occur after this type of acne. Temporary (1-2 months) changes in pigment are common.
Azelaic acid – A natural chemical produced by yeast, used as a topical agent to treat acne and rosacea.
Benzoyl peroxide – Topical antibacterial agent used to treat acne. Found in more over the counter and prescription products than any other topical agent. In certain prescription acne products benzoyl peroxide is combined with other active ingredients, such as clindamycin.
Blackhead – An open comedone. This dark acne lesion is really a plug of keratin and sebum. The dark color is due to oxidation (think the darkening of the surface of an apple on exposure to air) of the fats in the sebum.
Blue light therapy – A visible light treatment that works by killing the acne-producing bacteria, p.acnes, for a short period of time. This very natural treatment is one of the few that can be done on pregnant woman and breast-feeding mothers.
Chemical Peel – Exfoliates the superficial layers of the skin to help remove dead and damaged surface skin cells, refine the texture and color of your skin, and help improve acne. There are many different names for peels, but the ones best for acne normally contain salicylic acid.
Clindamycin – Topical antibiotic often used to treat acne.
Comedo or Comedone – A pore plugged with dead skin cells and sebum within a hair follicle. A comedone can appear as a blackhead or a whitehead. A whitehead can be referred to as a closed comedone.
Comedogenic – Products that induce the formation of comedones. Therefore, if you are prone to acne you want to look for products that are ‘non-comedogenic’.
Comedo extraction – A procedure often performed during a facial. A comedo extraction uses a round loop to apply pressure to dislodge the contents of blackheads and whiteheads.
Cyst – With acne, the term cyst is often used to mean a large bump that is red, tender and deep. The deepest and most inflamed cysts are likely to cause permanent scarring. This is the most severe type of acne. If cysts are treated promptly by a dermatologist, scarring can largely be prevented.
Dermabrasion – Method to remove the skin’s top layers and reduce acne scars using a rapidly rotating brush attached to a motorized handle, basically to perform high speed sanding. Newer technologies, such as lasers, have largely supplanted this procedure.
Doxycycline – An oral tetracycline (antibiotic) used to treat acne and rosacea.
Erythromycin – Oral and topical antibiotic that is often used to treat acne.
Facials – Performed by an aesthetician, a facial will normally steam your face and gently extract some of the plugs in your pores.
Isotretinoin – Chemical (generic) name for Accutane.
Laser Acne Treatments – Lasers produce single concentrated bands of light that can penetrate into the dermis without injuring the epidermis. Lasers can be used to treat acne and acne scars. When used to treat acne, the beams are adjusted to penetrate below the epidermis and travel into the dermis where they can find the hair follicles, sebaceous glands, and the p. acnes bacteria (bacteria that cause acne).
Microdermabrasion – Technique that uses aluminum oxide crystals passing through a vacuum tube to exfoliate surface skin.
Milia – Small, whitish, bumps in the skin due to hardening of sebum in a pore. This is type of acne is more difficult to remove than regular whiteheads and should be done by a professional.
Minocycline – An oral tetracycline antibiotic used to treat acne and rosacea.
Nodule – A large, red, tender bump that is lodged more deeply in the skin. They are inflammatory lesions that are sometimes referred to as cysts.
Non-Inflammatory Acne – A category of acne when a person’s lesions are primarily whiteheads and blackheads. See comedonal acne.
Oral contraceptives – Drugs used to help prevent an unwanted pregnancy. If you’re a female, your doctor may also prescribe them to fight acne by virtue of their anti-androgenic effects.
Papules – Small, red bumps (pimples) that are inflammatory lesions.
Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) – Involves painting a clear liquid (aminolevulinic acid) on the skin, letting it incubate for a short period of time, and then activating it with a light source (such as blue light) or a laser. PDT works to shrink the oil glands that can lead to acne.
Pomade acne – A type of acne seen in African Americans and other individuals who have tight curly hair and frequently use pomade (oils and greasy ointments) to style and improve their hair’s manageability.
Pulse dye laser (PDL) – This laser is tuned to a specific wavelength of light, which is absorbed by the superficial blood vessels of the skin. The abnormal blood vessels are destroyed without damaging the surrounding skin. This laser has been used to successfully treat acne scars, acne and rosacea telangiectasias.
Pustule – A small, red bump that contains pus and is an inflammatory lesion.
Salicylic acid – Ingredient found in many over the counter acne products. Helps to exfoliate the outer layers of the skin and treat acne.
Spironolactone – An anti-androgen medication sometimes used in combination with oral contraceptives to treat acne in women.
Sulfacetamide – Anti-infective used topically to treat acne and rosacea. Often combined with sulfur.
Tetracycline – Oral antibiotic typically used to treat acne and rosacea.
Whitehead – Small, pearly white acne lesion that consists of a plug of keratin and sebum. Occurs when the comedone stays below the surface of the skin. Also called a closed comedone.
See Dr. Irwin’s article Acne In Depth for more information.
See Dr. Irwin’s expert answers to other reader’s questions on Common Acne Terms:
Can you help? I’m a male, 25, with acne and lots of oil.