A Basic Guide to Acne Mechanica

Acne Mechanica: What Causes It 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 become irritated and progress to more obvious, inflamed blemishes.

What Causes Acne Mechanica? Friction

The biggest difference between acne mechanica and run-of-the-mill common acne (called acne vulgaris) is the cause. 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
  • straps from backpacks, bags, and purses
  • hats and headbands
  • bra straps
  • tight-fitting undergarments

These things trap and hold heat and sweat against the skin, and can cause a blockage in the hair follicle (AKA the pore). With continued rubbing, the pores get 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 trap heat and sweat against the skin.

Soldiers are another group commonly affected by 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. 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 on the buttocks.

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. Playing the violin might cause breakouts on the chin. Or talking on the phone for long periods of time regularly might cause breakouts on the side of the face.

Best Treatments for 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 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.

Wearing synthetic fabrics seems to worsen acne mechanica because they trap heat against the body. Whenever possible wear natural fabrics, like breathable cotton. Since most sports uniforms are made from synthetic fabrics, try to wear 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. Try a handheld bag instead of a backpack. Don't wear hats or caps 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 several 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.

View Article Sources
  • Botros PA, Tsai G, Pujalte GG. "Evaluation and Management of Acne." Primary Care. Dec 2015; 42(4):465-71.
  • Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE. "Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016 May; 74(5):945-73.e33.