Inflammatory pimples

Papules and pustules

Find out what they both are and how you can help them go away.


Both pustules and papules are inflammatory acne spots. This category also includes nodules and cysts. Non-inflammatory acne refers to blackheads and whiteheads.

They are caused by skin pores (hair follicles) becoming clogged with oil and skin cells.  The oil in these clogged pores feeds bacteria that live on your skin called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes). Your body responds with inflammation to fight the bacteria. 

What’s the difference between a papule and a pustule?

Both papules and pustules look similar – papules are tiny, red bumps on the skin – while pustules also have small white dots, caused by a build-up of pus. It is extremely common for papules to accumulate pus and, therefore, turn into pustules after a few days. If your papule or pustule is larger than 5mm, hard and painful it may, in fact, be a nodule or cyst that has built up beneath the skin.

What triggers pustules and papules?

Acne, in general, is initiated by the production of excess sebum. This can occur as a result of hormone imbalances, such as puberty, when there is excess activity of androgens, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).


Acne can also be triggered or aggravated by stress, diet (e.g. consuming too much sugar) and certain medications (e.g. corticosteroids).

How can I make pimples go away?

Over-the-counter and prescription treatments are available to treat papules and pustules and success depends on their severity. If you have tried over-the-counter treatments for several weeks without any sign of improvement, see your dermatologist or doctor. You may also want to investigate if you have fungal acne.