How to Get Rid of Body Acne

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Treating back and body acne often proves to be a bit tougher than facial acne. For one, the logistics of rubbing a treatment cream on your own back is a factor. Secondly, body blemishes are often deep and stubborn. But with the right treatments, some time, and patience, you can get your body acne under control. 

Back view of senior woman applying cream on neck
Westend61 / Getty Images

Causes

There are two types of acne: inflammatory acne and non-inflammatory acne. Most people who have acne have some form of non-inflammatory acne—with the most common comedones being whiteheads and blackheads. You may have comedones on your back, chest, shoulders, and buttocks too; these regions are particularly prone to inflammatory acne because they contain more sebaceous glands than other parts of the body.

Inflammatory acne breakouts occur when oils, dead skin cells, and bacteria build up in your sebaceous glands. The body interprets this buildup as an infection, so it sends white bloods cells to fight against it. Deep in your skin tissue, cysts can form and become red, tender, and inflamed as they try to push through the skin. The resulting pustules, papules, nodules, and other comodones can be tender and harder to get rid of. Sometimes, they can leave scars.

A few factors in particular could be contributing to your body acne breakouts:

Family History

If one or both of your parents have a history of acne, you may be more prone to breakouts yourself.

To determine the extent that acne runs in the family, researchers examined the genomes of 5,602 people with severe acne and 21,120 people without it. The researchers were able to fine-map and identify 15 different genetic variations in 15 genome regions that people with severe acne had in common. Some of these genes cause variations in the structure of a person's sebaceous glands, and these changes might make it more difficult for their glands to maintain themselves and protect against bacteria buildup.

In other words, if you inherit acne, it's not because you inherited an "acne gene," per se; rather, you may have inherited an underlying health condition or a biological trait that makes you prone to pore blockage.

Hormones

Androgens (such as testosterone) are the primary male sex hormones, but women have them, too. When imbalanced, androgens can cause increased sebum (oil) production, changes in skin cell activity, and inflammation, all of which contribute to acne. This happens frequently for both males and females during puberty, but hormone fluctuations can cause acne at any age.

For adult women, androgen levels remain constant throughout their entire menstrual cycle. Then, just before bleeding begins, estrogen levels fall, allowing more testosterone to bind to receptors on the sebaceous glands and stimulate sebum production. Excessive testosterone levels in adult men can have a similar effect, and is often a result of a genetic predisposition.

Other endocrine disorders that are associated with acne in women include polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and adrenal hyperplasia.

Stress

An influx of stress hormones can trigger breakouts, worsen existing breakouts, and slow down the healing process, even in people who are not prone to acne. There are several factors that play into this:

  • Inflammation: Stress causes the release of cytokines—small proteins that bind to receptors in the sebaceous gland and activate an inflammatory response.
  • Immune system: Stress impairs the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off bacteria. It can also take longer for acne breakouts to clear up when you're under stress, since stress hinders the body's ability to repair wounds.
  • Hormones: Acute and prolonged stress cause a surge of androgens, which lead to inflammation and excess sebum production.
  • Sleep and diet: Stress causes many people to overeat unhealthy foods and lose sleep. While these behaviors may not trigger acne by themselves, they can increase inflammation in the body and make you more prone to breakouts.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

Effective acne treatments can be found at your local drugstore or online and are a good first defense against body acne. That said, it's not likely that the OTC acne treatment you choose will work overnight; try to stick with a treatment for at least three months before you discontinue its use.

As you search for an OTC acne treatment, keep an eye out for products that contain hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid or glycolic acid. These cleansing agents are particularly effective for exfoliating skin and treating severe acne, but one may be more beneficial for your skin type than the other.

Glycolic Acid
  • Water soluble and better for dry or sun damaged skin

  • Peels away dead skin cells at the surface layer

  • Can lighten acne scars and even skin tone

  • Helps the skin retain moisture

  • Reduces pore size to minimize clogging

Salicylic Acid
  • Oil soluble and better for oily or inflamed skin

  • Penetrates deep into pores

  • Contains anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness

  • May dry the skin out

  • Reduces pore size and removes dead skin cells

Acne Treatment Body Wash or Cleanser

Choose a body wash containing a hydroxy acid or benzoyl peroxide to target the growth of bacteria, dead skin buildup, and excessive oil production. You can find body wash for acne that contains these agents at most drug stores.

One such product by Humane is an eco-friendly and dermatologist-tested body wash that contains 10% benzoyl peroxide. CeraVe also contains a gentle exfoliant with salicylic acid that removes dead skin buildup without being too rough on the skin.

There are pros and cons to consider for both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid before choosing a product. In general, benzoyl peroxide works better for inflamed pimples, while salicylic acid is good for bumps and blackheads.

Medicated Lotions or Sprays

If cleansers aren't doing the trick, add a medicated treatment lotion or spray to your treatment routine. Sprays in particular are great for those hard-to-reach places on your back. An option to consider is the Salicylic Acid Body Spray by Acne Free, which is fast-drying and contains aloe vera to protect your skin from excessive dryness.

Just keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide can stain your clothes. Before getting dressed, make sure any spray or lotion you use that contains benzoyl peroxide has fully dried on your skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Mild body acne (meaning you just have small bumps and breakouts, or just a few pimples) often responds to good daily skin care and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) can help boost the effectiveness of OTC acne products. Look for an OTC product that also contains an alpha hydroxy acid, like glycolic acid or lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids help to speed cell turnover, rapidly exfoliate the skin, and reduce the number of pore blockages.

The Glycolic Foaming Cleanser by Mario Badescu is great for people with oily and sensitive skin. Drunk Elephant also carries a powerhouse AHA peel called T.L.C Sukari Babyfacial, which contains a blend of lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and more.

Alpha hydroxy acids may increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun. Take care to use an oil-free sunscreen that won't clog your pores and wear protective clothing when you use products that contain AHAs.

Using Multiple Products

When treating body acne, you typically can combine acne treatments without causing excessive irritation, but you should still monitor your skin.

Since the skin on the neck is fairly sensitive, use treatment products slowly and carefully in this area. If you notice excessive irritation, dryness, or peeling on any area of the body, scale back or discontinue use of the product, and consult your doctor.

woman with acne on arm

kadirkaplan / Getty Images

Prescriptions

Body acne is stubborn, so moderate acne and severe breakouts may not get better with the OTC options listed above. You'll need to bring in some stronger prescription treatments to get those breakouts under control.

Don't wait too long to see a physician for a prescription acne treatment, especially if your acne is severely inflamed. Body acne can cause deep scarring. The greater the inflammation, the higher the chance of developing lasting scars.

Depending on your situation, your dermatologist may prescribe a topical treatment, oral medications, or both. Some common treatments are:

As with facial acne, it takes time to control body acne. You will most likely have to try several treatment products or medications before finding the one that works best for you.

Lifestyle

Once you start on a proven acne-treatment routine, there are a few steps you can take to boost the effectiveness of your treatments.

Shower ASAP after sweating. Although body acne isn't caused by a lack of cleanliness, it can be irritated by sweat. So make sure you shower right after a workout.

Minimize anything that rubs against breakout-prone areas. Anything that traps heat against the skin, or causes friction, can worsen breakouts. This includes sports equipment, backpacks, purse and bra straps, and tight clothing. Try to limit or adjust these triggers as much as you can.

Don't pop or squeeze blemishes. Just as with facial acne, avoid popping your body and back acne pimples. This is a surefire way to cause more inflammation and quite possibly acne scarring.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes back and body acne? 

Back and body acne can be caused by clogged pores, hormones, or stress. If you have a family history of body acne, you are more likely to experience back and body acne. 

Should you squeeze back acne? 

No, you should not pop pimples on your back, body, or face. This leads to more inflammation and possible scarring. 

What body wash is good for back and body acne? 

A body wash that contains hydroxy, salicylic, or glycolic acids or benzoyl peroxide can help to treat back and body acne. CeraVe brand’s SA Body Wash contains salicylic acid. Humane Maximum Strength 10% Acne wash contains 10% benzoyl peroxide. 

A Word From Verywell

It can take a lot of time to successfully clear a case of back acne, so try to be patient. You have to be very consistent with your acne treatment medications and daily skincare routine.

If you don't feel like your medications are working, let your dermatologist know. It can take several tries before finding the treatment that works for you. But with the right treatment, you should be able to see and feel the difference.

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