What Is an Acne Pustule?

Acne Pustules
Acne Pustules. Photo © A.D.A.M.

A pustule is an inflamed acne blemish.   Pustules look like red, inflamed bumps on the skin with an obvious white top or head.  That white head is filled with pus, oil, and cell debris.

A pustule is what most people consider a typical pimpleEveryone has had a pustule at some point in their life.  We also call these blemishes zits or whiteheads. 

What causes pustules?

When the pore becomes engorged with a plug of excess oil and skin cells, the pore wall can rupture.

  It becomes red, swollen and sore, creating a papule.  As white blood cells rush in, pus forms, creating that obvious white head.  The papule has now become a pustule.  

Sometimes the head of the pustule isn't white -- it might be a cream to yellow color.  You may also see a brownish comedonal plug in the middle of the head.  All of that is normal. 

Got a white head that isn't red and inflamed?  It's not a pustule.

Maybe you have a white head that isn't red, inflamed or sore.  If your whitehead is more like a hard, little white bump, it's probably not a pustule at all.  These blemishes are actually called milia

They form differently than pustules.  While a good portion of the white head in a pustule is made up of pus, the white heads of milia are not pus-filled.  Instead, it's a plug of sebum (or oil) that has become trapped under the skin's surface.

Milia are treated differently, too. Take a look at this article to get more info on identifying and treating milia: Everything You Need to Know About Milia.


Got a blemish that is especially large, hard, and painful?  This may not be a pustule either.

Some pustules are small, some pustules are fairly large.  But if your pustule seems especially big, it may be a more serious type of lesion.

Boils look like pimples on steroids -- they're big, red, swollen and painful.

  If you've got a "pimple" in a weird place, like your underarm, suspect a boil. 

Boils and acne pustules have different causes, and they're treated differently too.  So, it's really important that they're appropriately diagnosed.  This article will give you the basics: Is It a Big Pimple or a Boil?  But, of course, talk with your doctor if you have any questions.

Don't pop or squeeze pustules.

Pustules are the types of blemishes that we're most likely to squeeze.  It's never a good idea to pop any blemish, pustules included.  You can wind up making the breakout look worse.  You can also cause a scar. 

But, since no one likes to walk around with a big white head on their face, you can try using a warm compress to help it drain.  It's much more gentle on the skin than squeezing.

Here's how you can get rid of pustules.

If you only get occasional pustule, you can help it heal more quickly by applying an OTC spot treatment that contains salicylic acid, sulfur, or benzoyl peroxide. 

But if you regularly break out, you'll get much better results by stopping those blemishes before they even start.

  For mild breakouts, over-the-counter acne products can do the trick if you use them daily.  More tenacious breakouts will do best with prescription acne medications. 

If you need help getting your acne under control, or even just planning a treatment routine, make an appointment with a dermatologist.

Next steps:

Best-Bet Acne Treatments

What Is Acne Vulgaris?

The Different Stages of Acne


Lavers I.  "Therapeutic strategies for acne vulgaris."  Nurs Times. 2013 Dec 4-10;109(48):16-8.

United States. NIAMS. "Questions and Answers About Acne." Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, 2006.

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