What is Cystic Acne?

Acne vulgaris, commonly known simply as acne, is the world’s most widespread skin disorder. It is also one of the most common conditions seen in outpatient skin clinics in the United States. Importantly, acne does not favor any specific gender, ethnicity, race, or skin color. 


Acne appears in various forms, including open and closed comedones as well as inflamed spots. In everyday language, open and closed comedones are known as blackheads and whiteheads. Inflamed spots are red areas on the skin that may be slightly swollen and painful; these can be small bumps (papules), pus-filled bumps (pustules), or larger lumps (nodules).

The main cause of acne is clogged skin pores. These pores get blocked when oil combines with dead skin cells and bacteria. You’ll typically find these acne spots on the face, neck, upper chest, shoulders, and back.

Different Levels of Acne

Acne’s spectrum ranges from mild to moderate to severe and is further subdivided as non-inflammatory or inflammatory.

Mild Form of Acne

Moderate Form of Acne

Severe Form of Acne

Acne vs. Cystic Acne: Understanding the Difference

One of the most severe forms of acne is cystic acne, which can be both physically painful and emotionally distressing. So, what sets cystic acne apart from common acne? Let’s delve into the differences.

Cystic acne is a more severe form of acne that goes beyond the typical pimples or blackheads. It involves deep, painful, inflamed cysts forming under the skin, which can result in permanent scarring if not treated properly. Cystic acne is most commonly found on the face, but it can also appear on the back, chest, arms, and even behind the ears.

Key Differences

  1. Depth of Lesions: While common acne usually affects the surface of the skin, cystic acne forms deep within the skin layers.

  2. Severity of Inflammation: Cystic acne is highly inflamed and can be very painful, unlike common acne which is generally less inflamed.

  3. Risk of Scarring: Cystic acne has a higher risk of leaving permanent scars due to the depth and inflammation of the cysts.

  4. Treatment Complexity: Over-the-counter treatments that are effective for common acne usually don’t work for cystic acne. Medical intervention, often involving prescription medication, is usually required for treating cystic acne.

  5. Duration: Cystic acne lesions can linger for extended periods, sometimes weeks or even months, whereas common acne lesions may resolve more quickly.

Understanding the difference between acne and cystic acne is crucial for effective treatment. While common acne can often be managed with over-the-counter products, cystic acne usually requires a more targeted, medically supervised approach. If you suspect you have cystic acne, consult a dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

Different Types of Cystic Acne Lesions

Non-inflammatory acne spots, commonly known as whiteheads or blackheads, are filled with a thick, white to yellow substance made up of dead skin cells. Whiteheads, which are technically called closed comedones, can sometimes evolve into inflamed acne spots.

Inflamed acne spots can take various forms, including small bumps (papules), pus-filled bumps (pustules), larger lumps (nodules), or even cysts. These types of acne can cause different levels of pain. When inflamed acne becomes severe, it’s referred to as cystic acne.

Who Can Be Affected

Acne is the most common skin issue worldwide, affecting 90% of people at some point in their lives. While it can appear at any age, it most commonly emerges during puberty and often worsens throughout adolescence.

Age Groups Affected: Acne is most prevalent among individuals aged between puberty and 30 years. Specifically, 79% to 95% of people affected are between the ages of 16 and 18. Additionally, over 81% of acne patients are within the puberty to 30-year age range.