Over 40% of people with facial acne also have body acne. Some people have neck acne, back acne, or chest acne, while others have hairline acne or acne in hair, but all body acne has one thing in common: it can be particularly tricky to get rid of. Even after many of us find a solution to the acne on our face, we struggle to find the answer for dealing with body acne. There are a few reasons for this, which we’ll explore in just a moment, but for now, rest assured that you are not the only one with body acne, and there are solutions out there. Read on to discover why you have any kind of body acne, from inner thigh acne to butt acne, and what you can do about it.
Body Acne vs. Facial Acne
Before we get into why body acne can be so much harder to treat than facial acne, let’s discuss what acne on the body and the face have in common.
First and most importantly, all acne, whether found on the body or the face, is caused by the same three main factors: inflammation, bacteria, and oil production. These factors combine to clog pores, cause infections, and create painful swelling and redness. Blackheads and whiteheads are primarily caused by excess oil which gets trapped in the pores due to minor inflammation, while pimples form when a particular kind of bacteria called p. acnes get trapped in the pores due to minor inflammation. You’ll notice that inflammation is the key factor in all this. Studies have found that acne is a primarily inflammatory condition, and the frontline treatment for all kinds of acne, facial and body, should focus on reducing inflammation.
Despite this vital similarity between facial and body acne, it’s important to note the many ways these forms of acne differ. The first difference is that body acne is sometimes not actually acne. Acne is a specific condition caused by the factors above, but many other conditions from razor burn to abscesses can look somewhat like acne. It’s important to know exactly what you’re dealing with so you can find the best treatment, because acne products are unlikely to help non-acne.
The second big difference between facial and body acne is about skin thickness. The skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis on the surface, the dermis below, and the hypodermis at the base. On the face, all three of these layers are relatively thin, but on the body, these layers are much thicker. This is why it’s often harder to treat body acne, because oil and bacteria can venture deeper into the skin and stronger products are necessary to get to them.
A Comprehensive Body Acne Map
When we think body acne, many people imagine chest acne, back acne, and butt acne, but in reality, body acne can occur in so many other places.
As we said, some of the most well-known places for body acne are the neck, shoulders, back, chest, and breasts. These are some of the most common forms of body acne, but acne can occur other places on the trunk as well, like on the stomach, butt, or even the armpit.
Many people also experience acne at the very top of their head: scalp acne, hairline acne, and ear acne. This is body acne that’s the most similar to facial acne because the skin is a similar thickness, but acne on the head is typically caused by specific products.
On the limbs, acne on arms, leg acne, and inner thigh acne are all distinct possibilities. Acne on the limbs is less common than truncal acne or head acne, but it can be just as stubborn.
Much of Body Acne is Acne Mechanica
Most people get some body acne here and there throughout their lives, but some of us have it consistently—what’s up with that? The most likely answer is acne mechanica.
Acne mechanica is the same as normal acne, it just has a specific cause: friction. When something rubs against our skin for an extended period of time, it causes irritation, which is very bad for acne. It stimulates two of the three main causes of acne, and could potentially trigger the third. When the skin is irritated, it tries to protect itself from further irritation by becoming inflamed. This causes the skin to swell slightly, constricting the pores and trapping any oil or dead skin cells and potentially causing blackheads or whiteheads. But irritation does even more than that. Our skin also tries to protect itself by producing a burst of oil to provide extra lubrication between our skin and the irritant. If the skin is particularly oily, light friction might not be able to irritate the skin as much. This can further clog the pores, especially if the friction continues and rubs the oil back into the pores. This oil also might impact the third cause of acne, bacteria.
The main food source of p. acnes bacteria is the oil our skin produces, so whenever there’s a large influx of oil, the bacteria have extra food and can reproduce more quickly. With more p. acnes comes more acne, specifically pimples. This is how simple friction can cause all kinds of acne.
Acne mechanica can occur on the face, especially in the chin or jawline area for flautists and violinists, but it is most common on the body. Acne mechanica is often called sports acne because one of its biggest causes is tight sports equipment and uniforms.
Common Causes of Acne Mechanica in Body Acne
Acne mechanica might be called sports acne, but sports and exercise are far from its only causes. Harsh chemicals and shaving are also popular culprits of acne mechanica on the body. However, it’s important to note that these factors can also cause other conditions that can look similar to acne, like dermatitis or razor burn. If you aren’t sure if it’s acne, or if acne treatments seem to be making it worse, we recommend seeing a dermatologist.
Acne Mechanica Due to Exercise Clothing
Exercise clothing like uniforms or sports bras are often built to be tight on purpose, but this tightness is an ideal recipe for acne mechanica. Next time you put on your exercise clothes, check to see if your acne lines up with any particularly tight spots. If it does, your acne is likely being caused by this tightness. But it’s not like you can order a looser uniform or buy a bigger sports bra; then it wouldn’t do its job. We recommend showering as soon as possible after exercising, using gentle, non-inflammatory products on your acne, and washing your exercise clothes after each use to prevent the buildup of bacteria.
Could Synthetic Chemicals Be Causing Your Body Acne?
The second most popular cause of acne mechanica is harsh chemicals. We want to say, for the record, chemicals are not a bad thing. After all, when broken down to its core, everything is a chemical of some kind. What we’re talking about here are typically synthetic, lab-made chemicals. Plenty of these are perfectly okay as well, but some are very harsh on our skin. Our clothes, laundry detergent, skin care products, and other daily hygiene products are often full of these synthetic chemicals that irritate the skin and cause acne mechanica. If you suspect something about your daily hygiene products or clothing, whether it’s the clothes themselves or the detergent you’re washing them in, is causing some of your acne, the first step we recommend is trying gentler products that are designed for sensitive skin and avoiding fragrances.
How to Know If Shaving Is Affecting Your Acne
Usually the red bumps that go hand in hand with shaving is just razor burn, but because shaving can easily irritate the skin, it can also cause acne. This can happen with facial acne, but it’s also a popular cause of body acne. First, dull razors can definitely cause irritation and acne mechanica. Instead of gliding against the skin and slicing the hairs, dull razors rub against the skin, causing friction, and bend the hair, sometimes back into the hair follicle, which is what causes razor burn. But many shaving creams can also cause irritation because they tend to include some harsh chemicals, like fragrance and sodium lauryl sulfate, the ingredient that makes the cream foam up. The best way to avoid this problem is to use shaving gel, preferably one without fragrance, and shave in the shower. Shaving gels typically don’t have sodium lauryl sulfate, and shaving in the shower will ensure that all of the shaving gel is rinsed away completely.
Everything You Need to Know About Back Acne
Back acne is usually some form of acne mechanica, whether it’s caused by sports and exercise, synthetic chemicals, or shaving. Tight exercise clothing can cause acne mechanica almost anywhere on the body, including the back. Sports bra straps, tight exercise shirts, and tight uniforms can all be to blame, especially if they are made of or washed in synthetic chemicals that irritate your skin. Just like anywhere else on the body, if you shave your back, it can cause irritation and acne.
The causes of back acne are pretty similar to acne elsewhere, so why is back acne so frustrating? The biggest issue people usually have with back acne is that it often takes the form of cysts. Cysts are like pimples in that they are caused by a minor infection of p. acnes bacteria, but cysts form when the infection is not so easily defeated by the immune system. Instead, the bacteria break down pore walls and burrow deeper into the skin rather than being pushed toward the surface. Because of this, cysts don’t have a defined head the way pimples do, and they often have a thick layer of healthy skin that grows over the infection, making them very dangerous to pop on your own. This layer of thick skin is actually one of the main reasons back acne is more likely to be cystic. The skin on your back is relatively thick, so once p. acnes bacteria get beneath the surface, the infection is less likely to make its way back to the surface like a pimple, as it typically does with facial acne, or even other body acne.
Shoulder Acne: Simple But Stubborn
Shoulder acne is actually incredibly similar to back acne: the skin on the shoulders is thick, leading to increased cystic acne, shaving and synthetic chemicals could play a role in causing shoulder acne, and the shoulders can also be irritated by exercising in tight clothing. This is actually the only area where the shoulders might be worse off than the back, though, especially for women. Tight sports uniforms are usually tight everywhere, including the chest, stomach, back, and shoulders, and this can cause all kinds of acne mechanica, but your shoulders are a major joint, they are constantly moving with almost any kind of exercise, and this increased movement could lead to increased irritation and increased acne. The reason we say this could be especially problematic for women is because of bras and sports bras. They are meant to support the breasts, but this means the shoulder straps bear the weight of the breasts. This added weight means the straps are more likely to rub and cause irritation.
If You Have Armpit Acne, See a Dermatologist
It might seem odd, all the places body acne turns up. Surely if butt acne is normal (it is) then armpit acne must be normal too, right?
Wrong. Acne very rarely occurs in the armpit, meaning those red, swollen bumps are one of three things: razor burn, abscesses, or hidradenitis suppurativa. If it’s razor burn, you have nothing to worry about, but abscesses and hidradenitis suppurativa are more serious problems that need to be treated by a dermatologist sooner rather than later.
An abscess is a pocket of infection in the skin, somewhat similar to cystic acne. However, abscesses often run deeper than cysts, and can involve any kind of bacteria, not just p. acnes. Many times, the bacteria involved in abscesses are more aggressive than p. acnes and cause a bigger problem. Unlike cysts, which often heal with the help of topical or oral treatments (albeit slowly), abscesses almost always need to be opened and drained in order to truly heal, a procedure that should be performed by a dermatologist.
Hidradenitis suppurativa is also sometimes called acne inversa, but dermatologists are moving away from that name, since it is not really acne. It starts in a similar way, with a blocked pore and minor infection, but with hidradenitis suppurativa, the pore affected is typically in an unusual spot for acne, like in the armpit or around the genitals. It also differs from regular acne because the infected blockage goes deeper, to the root of the pore, eventually reaching the sweat gland. The infection takes over there, and the gland fills with fluid and eventually bursts, spreading the infection. This results in a collection of abscesses that need to be treated by a dermatologist. The causes of hidradenitis suppurativa are unknown, but genetics and a weakened immune system likely play a role.
Why Chest Acne Is So Common
Some forms of acne are popular because they are caused by a relatively universal human experience, like blackheads, which form because of excess oil production. Chest acne takes a different tact. Chest acne is one of the most common forms of body acne because it can be caused by such a wide variety of factors that most of us encounter at least one or two of them in our daily life and end up with acne on our chest. Like back acne, it’s often caused by tight clothing, exercise, synthetic chemicals, and shaving, but the skin on the chest is thinner than that on the back, meaning it takes even less to cause irritation and the acne-related problems that come with it.
For instance, even if you wear relatively loose-fitting tops, they could be contributing to your chest acne if they contain synthetic chemicals that you’re sensitive to, or if you wash them in a skin-irritating detergent. Shaving your chest could cause irritation even with a sharp razor, and shaving your face could have a negative impact on chest acne as well. Even though the razor never touches your chest, the shaving cream that drips down your neck and dries on your chest could irritate the skin if it has fragrances or sodium lauryl sulfate.
Irritation can lead to all kinds of acne, but have you noticed that your chest acne is primarily made up of pimples? This is because the skin on your chest has one other big difference from the skin on the rest of your body: the pores are relatively large. These large pores require a lot of excess oil to get clogged up, and pimples usually form before there’s a chance for blackheads or whiteheads.
Breast Acne Has a Few Unusual Causes
In most ways, breast acne is just like the other forms of body acne we’ve discussed so far, but it does have a few different causes. It’s caused by the typical acne mechanica factors like exercising in tight clothing and using products or wearing clothing with synthetic chemicals, but shaving generally isn’t an issue for breast acne, and it has a few additional causes. For instance, the kind of acne mechanica typically caused by sports or exercise can occur on the breasts even if you haven’t worked out at all, especially if your bra doesn’t fit properly or if it’s hot outside.
Sports bras are often responsible for breast acne because we’re meant to exercise and sweat in them, but when it gets hot out, normal bras can cause acne too. Unlike a sports bra, which can be promptly removed after working out, many people wear bras all day long, even when it’s hot out and you’re sweating all day. This sweat can lead to an increase in friction, which could cause more acne. Similarly, poorly fitting bras can run into the same problem. If your bra is too tight, it might be causing significant friction that could lead to breast acne. One problem some women have with breast acne is related to hormones, but not necessarily because the acne itself is hormonal. It’s true that acne tends to increase in the week before menstruation, but breast acne specifically often increases because the breasts tend to swell during that week as well. Because of this swelling, bras that typically fit just fine get tight and could cause friction and acne mechanica.
The Truth About Acne On The Stomach
Like armpit acne, it turns out that 99% of the time, stomach acne is not actually acne. Unlike armpit acne, the bumps that look like acne on the stomach are harmless. Typically, those bumps are folliculitis. Folliculitis is a condition where the hair follicles become inflamed, sometimes even becoming infected. This typically looks like small, slightly raised red bumps, some of which might have white heads like a pimple. So how can you tell folliculitis from real acne? The truth is, you may not have to. Although they are different, they are caused by the same friction often caused by tight shirts or clothing made from non-breathable material, and the same treatments typically work (see the “Products to Try” section further down in this post). If you’re concerned, we recommend seeing a dermatologist, but stomach bumps are rarely anything to worry about.
What Is Up With Butt Acne?
It can be a little embarrassing to talk about, but the truth is, a lot of us have butt acne. Why, though? Usually, for the same reason we get acne on the stomach. Butt acne is almost always folliculitis, and typically goes away on its own or with the help of mild acne treatments. Still, there is the possibility it could be something else. Hidradenitis suppurativa, the abscess condition we discussed in the section on armpit acne, also frequently occurs around the anus, as does genital warts caused by HPV. If your butt acne is particularly raised or painful, we recommend seeing a dermatologist. We know it’s easier said than done, but don’t worry about being embarrassed. Dermatologists have seen it all, and like we said before, butt acne is incredibly common.
The Many Causes of Neck Acne
Makeup, shaving, and long hair are just a few of the potential causes for neck acne. Our neck is always so exposed (unless you’re into turtlenecks), and the skin there is nearly as thin as the skin on our face. This makes it especially susceptible to irritation.
Applying the right makeup in the morning and taking it off using a gentle cleanser before going to sleep shouldn’t make an impact on your acne at all. The trouble is, many of us use makeup that clogs pores, and when we wash our face at night, we forget to remove the makeup from our neck. This combination is sure to lead to neck acne, and the best way to avoid it is to look for makeup that says “non-pore-clogging” or “oil-free” on the label, and to leave a note for yourself on the mirror, reminding you to wash your neck too.
Shaving can cause irritation leading to neck acne for the same reasons it can lead to body acne on the face, chest, and back: dull razor, harsh chemicals in shaving cream, and not rinsing completely. But your neck might be more sensitive to these factors than the chest and back because of how much thinner the skin is at the neck.
Hair you don’t shave can have an impact on neck acne as well. If your hair is usually resting against the nape of your neck, your hair’s natural oils can easily transfer to your neck, causing an increase in oil that could lead to acne. Additionally, if you use hair products like mousse or hairspray that contain irritating chemicals and can easily get on your neck, these could play a role in your neck acne too.
Head Acne, Scalp Acne, and Acne in Hair is Usually Folliculitis
Similar to stomach and butt acne, head acne usually isn’t really acne, it’s folliculitis. Specifically, if you have scalp acne or acne in hair, then you can take a safe bet that it’s folliculitis. There are very few pores on our scalp that aren’t hair follicles, so if you notice red or white bumps on your scalp, it is likely folliculitis rather than acne, because acne does not affect the hair follicles.
Folliculitis can typically be treated the same way as acne, since reducing inflammation and killing bacteria helps both conditions, but many acne products are not appropriate for hair. When we discuss various products to use for body acne, we’ll have a specific section for acne shampoo.
Hair Products Are Likely to Blame for Hairline Acne and Acne on Back of Head
Have you noticed that you have more acne specifically around your hairline and around the back of your head? If you have, you may want to change out your hair products. Hairline acne is so commonly linked to hair styling products that it’s sometimes called pomade acne.
The trouble is, many pomades, gels, mousses, and other styling products contain pore-clogging oils, irritating chemicals, and fragrances, and the combination often leaves us with hairline acne or acne on the back of the head. To find hair products that help both your hair and your skin, you’ll want to check the ingredient list for comedogenic (pore-clogging) oils and harsh, undesirable chemicals, like sodium lauryl sulfate or fragrance. Sodium lauryl sulfate and fragrance will be listed directly in the ingredient list if they’re included, but to determine whether or not the oils in a certain product are a good idea for acne-prone skin, you’ll want to look up a comprehensive comedogenicity chart. This is a chart that rates various substances commonly included in hair and skin care products and rates them based on how likely they are to clog pores. A zero is the best, but a one is still acceptable and shouldn’t cause problems unless used in excess. Anything rated a two or higher should only be used with caution.
Before tossing your current products, check the ingredients. If you don’t see any pore-clogging oils, sodium lauryl sulfate, or fragrance, then you may want to see a dermatologist to discover what’s causing your hairline acne or acne on back of head.
Ear Acne Could Have a Variety of Causes
Ear acne is one of the most common forms of body acne, partially because there are so many things that could potentially cause ear acne. One issue is that all kinds of hair products, from shampoo to pomade to hairspray, often find their way into the ear where they can irritate the skin and clog pores. The next problem is the hair follicles. Like many other forms of body acne, sometimes ear acne is really folliculitis because the tiny hair follicles in the ear can easily get clogged, inflamed, or infected. The reason this can happen so easily is because of the third factor in ear acne: earwax.
Earwax is similar to the oil our skin produces except it’s much thicker, making it even easier for it to clog pores if it gets trapped in the ear or pressed into the pores. Left to its own devices, earwax will continue moving through the ear canal and be removed when you wash, but there are several things that can disrupt this process. Cotton swabs, for instance, can feel satisfying in the moment, but audiologists warn that more often than not, they simply push earwax further into the ear, sometimes impacting hearing and sometimes forcing earwax to clog pores. Earbuds can have the same effect, with the added problem of bacteria buildup. P. acnes bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they can’t survive in oxygen, so they make their home in the oil that they consume. P. acnes can easily survive in earwax as well, so if you only clean your earbuds occasionally, p. acnes could be transferred from your earwax to your earbuds, where they can grow in numbers, and then be transferred back to your ear when you put your waxy earbuds back in. This creates a cycle of infection that could cause persistent ear acne.
Acne on Arms: Is It Really Acne?
Although it’s completely possible to get acne on the arms from tight clothing, synthetic chemicals, or other means, folliculitis is more common, especially on the forearms. And if you have small, hard, flesh-toned bumps on your arms, that might not be acne either, but something entirely different called keratosis pilaris.
Keratosis pilaris is a skin condition where keratin builds up around the pores and forms a small, hard bump. It is most commonly found on the back of the upper arm, which is why so many people who search “acne on arms” quickly find that they really have keratosis pilaris. However, keratosis pilaris can also pop up other places, like the legs, stomach, and butt. Currently, dermatologists aren’t sure what causes keratosis pilaris, but they have found that it is typically genetic. Some dermatologists suggest using intense hydrating lotion or gentle exfoliation products to reduce keratosis pilaris, but there are not yet any 100% effective treatments. Luckily, it’s not harmful or contagious in any way, but it can be frustrating and persistent.
Leg Acne and Inner Thigh Acne Is Usually Folliculitis or Keratosis Pilaris
Like stomach, arm, and butt acne, leg acne and inner thigh acne is rarely true acne. Those bumps on your legs and thighs are typically the result of similar skin conditions like folliculitis or keratosis pilaris. As we said above, the cause of keratosis pilaris is unknown, but folliculitis is often caused by irritation, and there are many things that can irritate the legs and make it seem like those bumps are leg acne or inner thigh acne. First, if you shave your legs, you may get razor burn, which typically just looks like small red bumps, but sometimes razor burn gets mildly infected, giving it a white head that might look like a pimple. Second, exercise clothes and uniforms aren’t the only forms of clothing that can irritate the skin. Leggings and jeans, especially unwashed jeans or skinny jeans, can also cause irritation. Third, inner thigh acne specifically may not be folliculitis either, it could be chafing. If you wear a lot of dresses or skirts and your thighs are often rubbing together, the friction could cause chafing, resulting in small bumps that look like inner thigh acne.
The Best Products For Getting Rid of Body Acne
Now that we’ve gone over what causes various forms of body acne and other skin conditions that look like acne, it’s time for treatment.
There are nearly endless options for acne treatment out there, from creams to gels to pills to sprays. You may have tried many of these things, only to find that they made little to no impact on your body acne, even if the product helped your facial acne. It’s important to remember that body acne is more commonly caused by irritation, while the face typically involves excess oil and bacteria, and the skin on the body is much thicker than skin on the face, and may require stronger products. It’s also important to remember that not all body acne is really acne, so you can’t make it go away using acne products. If you aren’t sure what condition you’re dealing with, it’s best to see a dermatologist. They can recommend the best treatment options for you.
If you know (or are relatively confident) that your body acne is really acne, then we want to recommend our favorite acne body wash, soap for body acne, and acne body spray. We also have a bonus section for our favorite “acne shampoo,” like we mentioned in the scalp acne section, even though scalp acne is almost always folliculitis.
The Best Acne Body Wash: Exposed Skin Care
At Exposed Skin Care, we offer all kinds of products for all kinds of acne, including body acne. Our acne Body Wash contains some of our favorite acne-fighting ingredients, both scientific and natural, like salicylic acid and tea tree oil. Salicylic acid is a great ingredient for exfoliating the skin to help remove excess oil and dead skin cells, while tea tree oil has been proven to kill 99% of p. acnes bacteria. Together, these ingredients address two of the three main causes of acne: oil production and bacteria. To address the third issue, inflammation, our acne Body Wash also contains peppermint oil and sage extract. Both of these ingredients help soothe inflammation caused by irritation, which is perfect for body acne specifically.
If your body acne is severe, you will want to use this acne body wash twice a day, along with an acne treatment that stays on and keeps treating your skin all day or all night long (see the acne body spray section further down). If your body acne is mild to moderate, using the acne Body Wash in the shower once a day could be enough to reduce your acne. If you notice your acne getting worse, it’s possible that you have folliculitis, hives, or are sensitive to one of the other ingredients in the body wash. We recommend discontinuing acne body wash use and speaking with a dermatologist.
The Best Soap for Body Acne: SAL3 Salicylic Acid Sulfur Soap Bar
You might be wondering what sulfur is doing in soap—isn’t that the stuff that smells like rotton eggs? Well, yes, we admit that this soap for body acne has a bit of an odd smell, but sulfur is one of the best ingredients for body acne specifically. Sulfur is an exfoliating agent, like salicylic acid, but it is considered to be gentler, and it doesn’t dry out skin. Better yet, sulfur has been proven to help with other skin conditions, like dermatitis and even keratosis pilaris. The benefit of using this soap for body acne is that even if you aren’t sure if you have acne or a different skin condition, SAL3 is likely to help.
The Best Acne Body Spray: Paula’s Choice CLEAR Acne Body Spray
Acne body sprays are a relatively new acne treatment product that can be incredibly effective—emphasis on can be. Many acne body sprays are sticky or uncomfortable, others don’t contain enough acne-fighting ingredients to really make a difference, and some contain too much and they just end up irritating the skin. We like the Paula’s Choice CLEAR Acne Body Spray because it has the perfect combination of ingredients. It contains just the right amount of salicylic acid to exfoliate the skin throughout the day without causing irritation, but it also contains licorice extract and glycerin, two ingredients that help the skin absorb moisture and prevent irritation.
To use, spray evenly over the affected area and rub it in with your hands or with the applicator that comes with the spray. We thought that was a nice touch, considering body acne often occurs in hard to reach places, like the middle of your back. Once you’ve rubbed it in, allow it to dry (give it 1-2 minutes), then you can get dressed and be on your way.
The Best Acne Shampoo: Anti-b Antibacterial Shampoo
In most cases, scalp acne is usually folliculitis, and even though folliculitis can often be treated with traditional acne treatment products, most of these products aren’t necessarily safe for hair. This acne shampoo, on the other hand, is both safe and effective. It’s not really acne shampoo, since, as we said, scalp acne is usually folliculitis, but it is antibacterial, antifungal, and sulfate-free. Many hygiene products contain various forms of sulfate which can irritate the skin, which could contribute to folliculitis, so we were excited to find a shampoo that not only fights bacteria and fungi related to dandruff, but is also gentle. It also contains lemon extract which can help exfoliate the skin on your scalp, and aloe vera which helps reduce and prevent irritation. Simply replace your normal shampoo with the Anti-b Antibacterial Shampoo and your folliculitis should start to disappear. If it doesn’t, or if it gets worse, we suggest seeing a dermatologist.