What's the Difference Between Acne and Sebaceous Cysts?

 What's the Difference Between Acne and Sebaceous Cysts?

If you have acne, it’s important to know the type of acne you have so that you can get the proper treatment that targets your specific symptoms. Learn the differences between mild acne, moderate acne, and cystic acne: characteristics, causes, and treatments.


If you have acne, you have one or more of these skin blemishes: whiteheads, blackheads, pustules (pimples), papules (small, raised bump(s) on the skin without pus), cysts, or nodules. These skin blemishes usually appear on the face, neck, chest, upper back, and shoulders. When the blemishes disappear, they often leave discolored skin (brown spots) or scars on the skin. Regular acne consists of the smaller pimples, papules, whiteheads, and blackheads that appear and disappear fairly quickly -- in a matter of weeks. Cystic acne involves deep, painful lumps under the skin, called nodules or sebaceous cysts. Sebaceous cysts are larger than the pimples and papules in mild acne and often last for months.


Your body has sebaceous (oil) glands that are attached to your hair follicles. The more hair follicles, the more sebaceous glands, such as on your face, shoulders, upper back, and shoulders, where most acne tends to occur. Changes in hormone levels can cause your body to produce more oil, increasing the likelihood of acne formation. Diet, stress, and genetic factors can also be factors in causing acne. The process by which mild and severe acne starts the same way. When a pore gets clogged by excess skin cells that your body is trying to shed, it mixes with the oil from the sebaceous glands and gets stuck. This creates whiteheads and blackheads, which usually heal on their own in a relatively short amount of time. Sometimes bacteria that live on your skin get inside the pore, creating an infection that makes the skin around the pore red and inflamed. If the whitehead or blackhead bursts inside of the follicle, it creates a sac of yellow or white pus surrounded by red and inflamed skin -- these are pimples and papules. Like whiteheads and blackheads, pimples and pustules will eventually heal on their own with the body either absorbing the contents or sending them to the surface of the skin where they can drain. However, sometimes the whitehead or blackhead erupts deeper inside of the skin, causing large, tender, hard nodules or cysts under the skin that look like boils on the surface of the skin. Cysts are like nodules, but deeper under the skin.


Getting a treatment can provide you with relief and reduce acne scars. If you have mild acne (non-inflammatory acne) that consists of whiteheads and blackheads, you can start treating your acne with over the counter topical toners, creams, and cleansers. Most of these will contain salicylic acid, which exfoliates the skin, getting rid of the dead skin cells that can clog your pores. Salicylic acid is especially helpful in eliminating blackheads, which are pores that are clogged, but also open on the skin. A whitehead (a clogged and closed pore) is harder to treat and may need a retinoid, available in a milder form over the counter and in a stronger form through a prescription. If you have inflammatory acne (pimples and papules), you will probably need a product with benzoyl peroxide, which helps to kill the bacteria on your skin and reduce inflammation. Your dermatologist can prescribe this as an oral or topical medication.

If you have nodules or sebaceous cysts, you will need the care of a dermatologist. Your doctor will prescribe an oral antibiotic, such as tetracycline, to fight the infection under your skin. If you are a female with sebaceous cysts that aren’t responding to antibiotics, your doctor may prescribe an anti-androgen medication, which blocks the effects of the hormone androgen on your sebaceous glands. And additional acne treatment for women is birth control pills, which can help regulate the hormonal fluctuations that lead to acne. If your cystic acne isn’t going away with other treatments, your dermatologist may turn to Isotretinoin, a potent drug that has to be monitored carefully due to its possible, harmful side effects. Your doctor may also drain your cyst and inject medicine, such as a steroid into the cyst for quicker elimination of the infection and relief from the pain of the cyst or nodule. Some other acne treatments that you can receive at your dermatologist’s office are facials, laser treatments and photodynamic therapy, chemical peels and extraction of whiteheads and blackheads.

Call Vanguard Today!

Call Vanguard Dermatology in the greater New York City area to set up an appointment. You will meet with one of Vanguard’s experienced dermatologists to create a treatment plan that can provide the relief and healing you are seeking for your skin.

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