How To Tell If Your "Acne" Is Something Else Entirely

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Is there anything more frustrating (as far as skin care goes, at least) than trying to get rid of stubborn zit? Well, yes: Finding out that particular outbreak of acne isn’t actually acne at all. Even your trustiest spot treatment won’t do anything at all if that pimple on your chin is actually some completely different type of skin condition. In fact, your go-to salicylic could be making your situation worse if you’ve accidentally self diagnosed incorrectly.

To help us avoid these sorts of annoying situations, Connecticut-based dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara has shared the three skin conditions most commonly mistaken for acne. Don’t worry: None of them are life threatening, so there’s no need to panic if you find you’ve left them un- or improperly treated.

Of course, Dr. Gohara recommends seeing your dermatologist in person to confirm the source of your symptoms before trying any of the treatments. But if you’ve had a particularly stubborn breakout recently, you can start your road to treatment with this list of these conditions commonly mistaken for acne.

Rosacea/Perioral Dermatitis

Courtesy RHOFADE

What It Looks Like: “If acne and eczema had a baby, it would be this,” Dr. Gohara says. It general manifests as pink, scaly itchy skin around the mouth, nose, eyes. There are often small papules that look like, but aren’t, acne as well.

What Causes It: Dr. Gohara says that it can flame up after “hormonal fluctuations, hot or spicy food, red wine, changes of emotions, changes in temperature, or use of multiple irritating cosmetic products.”

How To Tell It’s Not Acne: You’ll often get rosy cheeks and broken blood vessels alongside those small, pimple-like papules.

What Acne Medicine Does To It: Depending on the type of treatment, it can cause your skin to become more inflamed.

How To Treat It: First and foremost, Dr. Gohara recommends avoiding benzoyl peroxide, harsh chemicals or exfoliants, as well as the aforementioned food and alcohol that can trigger a flare up. Your dermatologist may also recommend oral or topical antibiotics, or RHOFADE to help treatment symptoms.



What It Looks Like: Dr. Gohara describes milia as "small white pearl like cysts."

What Causes It: They often come from trauma or sun damage.

How To Tell It’s Not Acne: Though milia might look like tiny whiteheads, Dr. Gohara says they aren't popable. They're also super duper small and appear uniform in size.

What Acne Medicine Does To It: Using acne medicine on milia likely won't have any negative effects, but Dr. Gohara says it "just won't do much."

How To Treat It: Milia can't really be treated at home. According to Dr. Gohara, your dermatologist will likely recommend a facial with extractions.


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What It Looks Like: Razor burn. Folliculitis is inflamed hair follicles, Dr. Gohara explains.

What Causes It: Folliculitis comes "from friction, tight fitting clothes, shaving, or infection," according to Dr. Gohara.

How To Tell It’s Not Acne: Folliculitis only occurs around the hair follicle, so the location is the first clue that it isn't acne.

What Acne Medicine Does To It: "[Acne medication] might help a bit" to reduce the redness and inflammation typical with folliculitis, Dr. Gohara explains, but it won't actually cure the condition.

How To Treat It: "Modifying the irritating factor is most important," Dr. Gohara says of treatment. That could mean changing your razor more often, wearing looser clothes, or getting a topical from your doctor. Either way, your dermatologist will be able to recommend the best treatment plan.

If it turns out you do have acne, Dr. Gohara says that "Aczone is a great product to treat acne and acne like lesions. It has a high tolerability and helps to reduce inflammation and is not irritating." Whatever treatment plan your dermatologist recommends, knowing what you're dealing with will make the whole process far less painful.