How to Handle Inflammatory Acne

Breakouts aren’t just annoying; they’re confusing. Sometimes you get a pimple that’s a total non-event – a white head that goes away on its own almost as fast as it came. But then other times, you get a monster of a zit: a painful, pus-filled bump (ick!) that  can linger for weeks. What’s the deal? This type of breakout is called inflammatory acne, and as you already know, it’s not pretty. We enlisted the help of board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Kazin to give us the 411 on how to identify and address this cranky skin issue. 


inflammatory acne

What is it?  

All zits share the same initial development. They start with a clogged pore. Typically, it’s when bacteria, excess sebum (a.k.a. oil), or dirt (or any combination of these) get clogged in the pore. But with some zits, the gunk that’s blocking the pore starts to leak into the surrounding skin. “Your body tries to clear it with an inflammatory response,” says Rebecca Kazin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Washington D.C. What that can look like on your face? A red, swollen, angry-looking zit that is often larger than a white head, she notes. Inflammatory acne can range from hard red spots, pus-filled bumps, or painful cysts. Ouch!  

What Causes it? 

Anyone who notices excess oil on the surface of their skin or has acne-prone skin can wind up with an inflammatory pimple, explains Kazin. For some of us, the root of acne is just plain genetics (thanks, mom and dad). For others, the trigger can be hormonal. Normal fluctuations -- like those right before your period -- can spur a breakout. Some women have an excess of androgens, male hormones, that can increase the production of more pore-clogging oil. The hormone cortisol, which spikes when you’re stressed, can also play a role in producing more pimple-causing sebum. Other contributing factors include poor diet, underlying skin conditions, and simply not taking care of your skin properly. 

How to Address it?

First off, as tempting as it is, don’t pop those pimples. Popping can cause further infection, more redness and irritation, and even scarring. So, hands off! Fortunately, mild cases of inflammatory acne can be managed with over the counter products. Kazin suggests starting with a wash or exfoliating pads that are formulated with salicylic or glycolic acids to help clear clogged pores. Try Vichy Normaderm Gel Cleanser formulated with exfoliating salicylic acid. The ingredient benzoyl peroxide can also reduce the appearance of  inflammation, but Kazin says it can be drying on the skin. Reserve products formulated with it as a spot treatment, rather than a product used daily, if your skin can tolerate it.  To round out your regimen and help soothe your skin, Kazin likes a weekly hydrating mask that contains hyaluronic acid. Try SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Masque. “Your skin can get dry from acne treatments, so you should hydrate to help soothe the skin while you’re managing the acne,” Kazin says.
For more severe inflammatory, cystic acne, see a dermatologist who can get your bumps under control -- often with stronger topical treatments, medical-grade peels, or light-based therapies. 


To reduce the chances of future flare-ups, Kazin says you may need to swap out your heavy-weight moisturizer for a lightweight lotion and exfoliate skin regularly. Kazin likes light at-home peels. Try L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Brightening Peel Pads.


Do you have a DIY trick for shrinking a zit fast? Tell us in the comments below!


    About the Author:The daughter of a hairdresser, Krista Bennett DeMaio likes to say she has beauty in her blood. She has well over a decade of beauty editorial experience. The former magazine-editor-turned-freelance writer has covered all things beauty from anti-aging skincare to NYFW runway trends. Her work has appeared in national publications and websites including Women’s Health, Redbook, Shape, Dr. Oz The Good Life,, and She lives in Greenlawn, New York with her husband and two interns, er, daughters.