How to Get Rid of Body Acne, According to Dermatologists

Dermatologists break down the potential reasons why you're dealing with breakouts on your butt, back, and beyond — and how to find the best body acne treatment.

Close up of a woman's arms with acne
Photo: Getty Images

If you've long been sticking to a rigorous, acne-fighting skin-care routine (think: thoroughly removing makeup each day, regularly cleansing and exfoliating your face), you might think you finally have the pimples that plagued your teenhood well under control.

But if you're not treating the skin below your head to the same TLC, you might develop body acne that's just as stubborn as the zits that popped up on your face. Here, dermatologists give the low-down on body breakouts, including the primary body acne causes and how to get rid of body acne ASAP.

What Is Body Acne?

In case you need it spelled out, body acne is acne that develops anywhere except the face, and these breakouts commonly pop up on the chest and back — areas that have a greater density of sebaceous glands (re: oil glands), says Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Art of Skin MD in San Diego. Still, it's possible to develop acne on the neck, shoulders, butt, and other body parts, she says. "Essentially any surface covered with hair follicles is susceptible to a breakout," she adds.

There isn't one set "look" of body acne, either. "Acne on the body looks similar to facial acne because acne starts from the same point — a clogged and inflamed sebaceous oil gland or hair follicle unit," says Dr. Palm. Just like your face, you can experience small, red pimples, whiteheads, pesky blackheads, and inflamed, painful cysts on your body, she says.

The Main Body Acne Causes

Whether it appears on your body or your face, acne develops when there's an excess production of oil in a pore, a build-up of dead skin cells in a pore, bacteria growth in a pore (which, BTW, is the opening to a hair follicle), or a combination of any of the three, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The result: inflammation, which can lead to the formation of pimples, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).

That said, there are a few factors that may affect your risk of developing body acne, says Dr. Palm. For example, you may be more likely to experience acne if your parents also dealt with it, according to the NIH. And due to oil's role in clogging pores, folks who have oily skin are more likely to experience body acne, adds Dr. Palm.

Hormonal changes are also among the most common body acne causes, says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Birmingham, Alabama. During puberty, you experience an increase in androgens, male sex hormones that cause your skin's oil glands to enlarge and produce more sebum (re: oil), which, in turn, can lead to body acne, according to the NIH. In the days leading up to your period and during pregnancy, levels of hormones (think: progesterone) that have similar effects to androgens also increase, ramping up the production of sebum that could ultimately clog pores and cause breakouts, according to research published in the journal Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia.

Even if you have no family history of acne and don't have periods you're not necessarily in the clear — certain lifestyle habits can also up your risk of developing body acne. "Delaying showering after a sweaty workout can make your skin more prone to breakouts," says Dr. Palm. "Wearing synthetic, non-breathable fabrics, like polyester and nylon, regularly can also cause body acne in some people." The reason: Sweat can clog pores and encourage the build-up of breakout-inducing bacteria, according to Dr. Hartman.

What's more, the use of hair conditioners that contain emollients (oils, esters, and waxes used to lock in moisture) can also contribute to body acne, as they can clog pores when they come in contact with your skin, says Dr. Palm. That's why you may want to think about the order in which you apply your shower products. "I usually recommend rinsing off your conditioner first, then soaping up with your body wash to get rid of any emollient properties that can be occlusive and more likely to clog your pores," she says.

How to Get Rid of Body Acne

The first step of body acne treatment is to wash daily with a cleanser or body wash containing breakout-banishing ingredients, says Dr. Hartman. One such ingredient: sulfur. "It's an old and often underused anti-inflammatory medication effective in acne," says Dr. Palm. "It helps calm redness and is often successful in oily or sensitive skin types." Be warned: Sulfur products tend to have an unpleasant smell, she says.

You can also turn to tried-and-true ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide (which helps kill the type of bacteria that causes acne) or salicylic acid (an exfoliant that helps unclog pores and decrease inflammation), says Dr. Hartman. Salicylic acid tends to be less irritating to the skin than benzoyl peroxide, and the latter can also bleach clothing and other fabrics, so keep that in mind while choosing your cleanser, says Dr. Palm. These two acne fighters are generally considered safe when used for a limited time during pregnancy, but you should talk with your ob-gyn before you start incorporating it into your body acne treatment regimen, according to the AAD.

No time to book it to the gyno? Opt for a cleanser with glycolic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid that has exfoliating and skin-brightening properties) or azelaic acid (a dicarboxylic acid that helps exfoliate and address pigmentation issues) — both of which are considered safe to use during pregnancy, says Dr. Palm.

If you're experiencing skin dryness after you suds up, rehydrate with a lightweight moisturizer that's non-comedogenic (read: less likely to clog pores), suggests Dr. Hartman. Look for lotions that are oil-free or labeled "won't clog pores," according to the AAD. And try to avoid known comedogenic ingredients such as lanolin, isopropyl myristate, and butyl stearate, among others, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. "[You can use a lotion] as long as it's not anything that's clogging pores and making the problem worse," he explains. "We don't want to encourage too much moisture because that is one of the factors that may have contributed to the acne in the first place."

If you've stuck with this cleansing routine for eight to 12 weeks and still haven't seen any improvement in your skin, it's time to chat with your doctor about other body acne treatment options, says Dr. Hartman. You'll also want to talk with your derm if you're experiencing cystic acne — breakouts with inflammation that goes deep into the skin, suggests Dr. Palm. "[It's] typically very painful, deep, and pus-filled, which means there's a very high risk of scarring," she explains. "In some cases of cystic acne, a dermatologist might prescribe antibiotics or prescription-strength topicals to help clear up the breakout."

How to Prevent Body Acne

One of the simplest steps you can take to fend off body acne is to pay attention to your everyday habits, says Dr. Palm. If you typically wait a few hours after a HIIT workout to change out of your sweat-soaked leggings and bathe, start hitting the showers as soon as possible, which can prevent acne-causing bacteria from building up, she suggests.

To prevent pores from clogging in the first place, you can also exfoliate your body regularly, with a chemical exfoliant (think: a salicylic acid cleanser) or a physical exfoliant (e.g. a body brush with silicone bristles), says Dr. Hartman. All in all, adds Dr. Palm, "taking good care of your skin lays the foundation for good hygiene and prevents potential breakouts, whether that's on your face or your body."

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