The Four Types of Acne and How to Treat Them

Identifying the Stages of Acne:

Acne is a common skin condition characterized by the occurrence of what seems as never-ending pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and sometimes deeper cysts or nodules. It typically develops during adolescence but can persist into adulthood for some individuals. Acne can vary in severity and often goes through distinct stages of development.

You’ve probably also heard there are different types of acne which can make treating it on your own a little trickier. If you made it here, you’ll want to bookmark this as a guide so you know what ingredients to look for to target your skin concerns!

What are the four stages of acne?

While the presentation of acne can differ from person to person, there are four general stages of acne development:

  • Mild Acne (Grade 1): This stage is characterized by the formation of a few comedones, which are non-inflammatory lesions commonly known as blackheads and whiteheads. Blackheads (open comedones) occur when pores become clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells, leading to a visible black appearance due to oxidation. Whiteheads (closed comedones) occur when the pore is clogged but remains closed, resulting in a small, flesh-colored bump on the skin’s surface. Comedonal acne is typically mild and may not cause significant inflammation or redness.


  • Moderate Acne (Grade 2): Inflammatory acne occurs when the hair follicle becomes inflamed due to the presence of bacteria, excess oil, and dead skin cells. This stage is characterized by the development of papules and pustules. Papules are small, raised bumps that may be red and tender to the touch, while pustules are similar in appearance but contain pus. Inflammatory acne can be more noticeable and may cause discomfort or pain.

  • Severe Acne (Grade 3): Nodulocystic acne, also known as nodular or cystic acne, is a severe form of acne characterized by the development of large, painful nodules and cysts beneath the skin’s surface. Nodules are deep, solid lesions that can be painful and may persist for weeks or even months. Cysts are pus-filled lesions that are larger and more inflamed than pustules, often leading to scarring if not properly treated. Nodulocystic acne can be emotionally distressing and may require aggressive treatment to prevent scarring and alleviate symptoms.

  • Cystic Acne (Grade 4): Cystic acne is the final stage and most severe form of acne. This occurs as a result of tissue damage from severe or persistent acne lesions without adequate treatments. Scarring can take various forms, including ice pick scars, boxcar scars, and rolling scars, depending on the depth and severity of the tissue damage. Acne scarring can have a lasting impact on an individual’s self-esteem and quality of life, underscoring the importance of early intervention and appropriate treatment to minimize scarring risk.


What ingredients help fight each stage of acne?

We’re glad you asked 😉 as our wide selection of acne fighting products that have proven clinical results can be found directly on our shop site, or you can connect with an esthetician on our skincare quiz for an entire routine!

  • Mild Acne (Grade 1):

Add in a gel based cleanser for oily skin like Glo Skin Beauty Purifying Gel Cleanser

Best cleanser for acne prone skin without stripping your natural oils

Look for salicylic acid and azelaic acid in treatment products. Two products I also love from Glo are the Alpha Arbutin Drops and Beta Clarity BHA Drops. You don’t need both in your routine, but here’s what I would suggest to help you decide which you might prefer: Pick Alpha Arbutin if you’re struggling with pigmentation or PIH and pick Beta Clarity if you want some anti-aging benefits as well as a deeper exfoliation to purge any extra funk deep in your pores! The retinol in that serum is gentle but I always recommend starting slow when adding any new acid into your regimen!

Use this serum in the morning without any other actives, and don’t forget to layer your favorite moisturizer and sunscreen on top!
Use this serum at night with no other actives. Start slow and increase as tolerated. We recommend starting one night a week and gradually increasing frequency
  • Moderate Acne (Grade 2):

Incorporate a good enzymatic cleanser or mask, like Sanitas Enzymatic Cleanser or Sanitas Papaya and Pineapple Mask. You’ll want to rotate this cleanser with something gentle like their Sensitive Skin Cleanser! For the price point, you really can’t go wrong with either enzyme treatment. If you’re a mask girlie like me I would personally go for the papaya mask 1-2x week as your exfoliating mask treatment. Use it in the shower for best results to activate those enzymes and then rinse away. They even have a pumpkin enzyme mask (which is a level II so a little stronger than the papaya) that I love to use around the holiday season. I can’t get enough pumpkin any time of year though!!

We love this foaming cleanser! Be sure to rotate it into your routine with a daily gentle cleanser
Use this mask on your spa night 1-2x a week!

Keep your skin hydrated with an oil controlling moisturizer like the Balancing Moisturizer which has niacinamide to keep your pores clear and free of congestion

Best hydrating + oil free moisturizer for acne prone skin
  • Severe Acne (Grade 3):

Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) and sulfur can be a useful for some more stubborn pustules and nodular like acne to help to shrink the size and rid the follicles of acne causing bacteria. The Clarifying Lotion from Image Skincare has a 5% BPO formulation that can be worn over your moisturizer at night a few times a week. Be sure to include a spf in your routine when using any BPO product! If you don’t want a benzoyl peroxide product in your routine, try the B3 Clarifying Spot Treatment from Sanitas. This is a sulfur based spot treatment that works wonders and can be super drying to the skin, so you won’t want to pair this with other actives. Make sure you have a good moisturizer you love, and opt to use this at night.

Your first line of defense against pesky breakouts. Use this 1-2x a week under a moisturizer like the Clear Cell Mattifying Moisturizer or Balancing Moisturizer from Sanitas
Use this as a spot treatment at night instead of BPO, and don’t forget to moisturize
  • Cystic Acne (Grade 4):

Remember to not over do the actives, and keep your skin hydrated is key! The Balancing Moisturizer or Glo Beauty Oil Free Moisturizer are great options. Incorporate Sanita’s Beta Clarifying Cleanser 1-2x a week in your regimen without other actives, and rotate with a gentle cleanser.

Use this 1-2x a week at night
Use morning and night to keep your skin hydrated and functioning at it’s best at being acne free

Ice is also your friend – as you can take a clean ice cube with clean hands and gently apply over sore cystic bumps to alleviate any existing discomfort.

Often times this grade of acne involves additional intervention that may go beyond the scope of an esthetician. Connecting with a dermatologist can be helpful in some cases!

Email us your questions or connect on our free mobile app for more unique to you guidance.

~ Melissa, LE