What Is the Difference Between a Pimple and a Blackhead?

What's the difference between a blackhead and a pimple?  Both pimples and blackheads are types of acne blemishes.  But each one looks differently on your skin, and each is treated differently too.

Pimples are inflamed.

Woman looking at skin in mirror
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Pimples are a type of inflamed blemish.  Pimple are red and swollen.  They often hurt, but not always.  

Some pimples stay small, but others can get fairly large.  Pimples can appear on the face, neck, shoulders and upper torso area.

Blackheads are not inflamed.

Blackheads - Open Comedones
A.D.A.M.

Blackheads are a type of non-inflamed blemish.  They are typically flat, they aren't red or swollen, and they don't hurt.  In fact, you might not even notice you have a blackhead unless you're really inspecting your skin in the mirror.

You can get blackheads in the same places pimples appear, but they're most common on the nose, chin, around the lips, and in the ears. 

Pimples have a red or white head.

There are actually different types of pimples (crazy, right?)  A pimple with a red head, or just a red bump on the skin, is called a papule.

Your pimple may develop a white or yellow pus-filled top.  If it does, it's now called a pustuleNot all papules turn into pustules, though. 

Pustules are sometimes called "whiteheads."  Just to make things more interesting (or confusing) there is another type of blemish that is also called a whitehead -- milia.

Although they share the same nickname, milia and pimples are completely different types of blemishes.

Blackheads have a dark brown or black head.

Blackheads have a dark black head, hence the name.  The look like a dark dot on the skin.  Have a "freckle" appear that has never been there before?  Look closely -- it's probably a blackhead. 

Some blackheads are super tiny, so small you can barely see them.  Other blackheads can get quite large, several millimeters in diameter.

The technical name for a blackhead is open comedo.

Pimples develop when oil and dead skin cells become trapped in the pore.

Pustule Illustration
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Pimples develop when a plug of oil and dead skin cells becomes trapped lower in the follicle. 

Oil continues to be pumped into the plugged follicle, with nowhere to go.  Add in some normal skin bacteria, p. acnes, and the follicle becomes irritated and engorged.  The follicle wall breaks, white blood cells rush in, and the pore becomes red and swollen.  Voila!  A pimple has formed.

Blackheads develop when a blockage happens at the skin's surface.

Blackhead illustration
Image: BSIP/UIG / Getty Images

Similar to a pimple, blackheads also appear when a plug develops in the follicle.

Although it may look like dirt has become trapped in your pore, that black spot isn't dirt at all.  It's actually a plug of your skin's oil that has become trapped at the skin's surface.  The top of the plug oxidizes and turns into that dark blackish-brown spot your see.

Here's how you can treat pimples.

There are plenty of pimple-busting products and medications available.

For minor breakouts, over-the-counter acne medications should do the trick.

More stubborn or widespread acne can be treated with prescription acne medications that you get from your physician.

Remember, don't pop inflamed pimples!

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This is how you treat blackheads.

Unlike pimples, you can gently squeeze blackheads to remove them (gently being the operative word).

Since You can extract blackheads yourself, or have your esthetician extract them for you during a facial.

Pore strips are another way to treat blackheads, although the results are temporary.

If you want to keep blackheads away for good, you need to get on a regular treatment program.  Again, mild blackheads can be treated with OTC products.  Prescription medications are best for entrenched blackheads.

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