What Is Acne Mechanica?

What Causes Acne Mechanica and How To Treat It

Football players in a locker room
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Acne mechanica is a form of acne that anyone can get, but it's especially common in athletes, students, and soldiers. This type of acne is triggered by excess heat, pressure, friction or rubbing of the skin.

Acne mechanica can develop anywhere on the face or body (like the back, shoulders, or buttocks.) If you are already prone to breakouts, you're more likely to develop acne mechanica.

It varies in appearance from small, inconspicuous comedones to inflamed papules and pustules

In the early stages the skin may just feel rough or bumpy, even you can't see actual pimples. But as acne mechanica progresses, these tiny breakouts can become irritated and progress to more obvious, inflamed blemishes.

What Causes Acne Mechanica?

The biggest difference between acne mechanica and run-of-the-mill common acne (called acne vulgaris) is the cause. While common acne has hormonal roots, the cause of acne mechanica is completely physical and it boils down to one word: friction.

Anything that traps heat against the body for a prolonged period of time, rubs or puts pressure on the skin can trigger acne mechanica.

These are things like:

  • Athletic equipment, pads, and helmets
  • Straps from backpacks, bags, and purses
  • Hats and headbands
  • Bra straps
  • Tight-fitting clothes and undergarments

All of these things trap and hold heat and sweat against the skin, causing the hair follicles (AKA the pores) to become blocked. With continued rubbing, the pores become irritated and those tiny blemishes morph into larger, red pimples.

Athletic equipment is a prime culprit, especially for teen boys. Football or hockey pads, baseball caps, sweatbands, and helmets all can trigger acne mechanica, because they're heavy, stiff, and don't breathe. They can exert a lot of friction against the skin. And, let's be honest, when you're wearing them you're getting sweaty. A perfect recipe for acne mechanica.

Soldiers are another group that commonly get this form of acne. Packing heavy gear for long periods of time puts pressure on the skin, causing irritation and breakouts. It's especially common in young soldiers, stationed in hot and humid areas.

Tight-fitting clothes and undergarments are among other offenders. Ladies, breakouts can develop under snug bra straps. Friction from too snug or sweat-dampened clothes can trigger breakouts on the inner thighs, for example, or breakouts on the butt.

But it's not just clothing and gear that can cause acne mechanica. Anything that puts pressure on the skin for long periods of time can trigger it. Violin players may notice an area of breakouts on the chin where their instrument rests. Talking on the phone for long periods of time regularly might cause breakouts on the side of the face.

Is It Acne Mechanica or Common Acne?

Acne mechanica and common acne look nearly identical. But most of the time you can figure out what is triggering your breakouts with just a little detective work.

Clues your acne is acne mechanica:

  • Your skin is relatively clear in other areas, but you're breaking out in strategic spots. For example, your face is clear except where your hat band rests. Or you only have pimples on one shoulder, and it's the same shoulder that holds your purse strap.
  • Your body acne suddenly developed after you began working out (and consequently hanging out in tight gym clothes).
  • You've got acne during sports season that completely clears up in the offseason.
  • Your back and shoulder acne clears up during the summer but returns with the school year and your heavy backpack.

Acne mechanica often completely clears up when the offending culprit is taken away. This isn't always practical though. If you're a violinist or an athlete, you're not going to stop making music or playing your sport. Nor should you. Because there are other ways to treat acne mechanica.

Treating Acne Mechanica

Most cases of acne mechanica respond well to over-the-counter salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide treatments. Try a facial cleanser or body wash containing one of these ingredients, and use it daily.

Thoroughly cleanse the affected areas, but don't scrub. The added friction caused by scrubbing away at the skin can actually worsen breakouts. It's best to use a soft washcloth or simply your bare hands.

Benzoyl peroxide lotions are also effective treatments for acne mechanica. Begin by applying just a few times per week, and gradually work up to twice a day. Allowing your skin to acclimate to the benzoyl peroxide will help minimize dryness, flaking, and peeling.

Also, be aware that benzoyl peroxide will bleach out fabric. Wait until the product is completely absorbed before getting dressed, or wear old clothing you don't mind getting stained. Using white linens can also help minimize benzoyl peroxide staining.

Wearing synthetic fabrics can worsen acne mechanica because it traps heat against the body. Whenever possible wear natural fabrics, like breathable cotton. Since most sports uniforms are made from synthetic fabrics, try wearing a cotton t-shirt underneath. This is especially important under athletic pads, to help reduce the amount of friction on the skin.

If at all possible, try to avoid things that rub against your skin in the areas where you're prone to breakouts. Try a handheld bag instead of a backpack. Don't wear hats, tight-fitting caps, or headbands for long periods of time.

Obviously, you shouldn't stop wearing protective gear like helmets and athletic pads. But you can shower immediately after sporting activities to rinse away irritating sweat.

If over-the-counter products aren't working after 12 weeks of use, it's time to pay a visit to a dermatologist. You might need a prescription acne medication to get acne under control. Plus, your dermatologist will have additional suggestions to help clear your skin.

A Word from Verywell

Acne can be a frustrating problem. But if you're patient and consistent with your treatments, you can see improvement of your skin.

As much as possible, try to avoid anything that rubs or puts pressure on areas that are prone to breakouts. Always shower ASAP after sweating, and use your acne treatments consistently.

If you have any doubt that what you're seeing is acne, have it checked out by a physician to ensure you're getting the right treatment.

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