Acne is a very common dermatological problem, and most people with acne experience breakouts throughout their lives. Acne blemishes are caused by clogged pores, which can become irritated or infected. Oil from your skin, called sebum, and dead skin cells back up into the pores, resulting in bumps, inflammation, redness, and swelling. Acne can consist of several different types of clogged, infected pores: blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, and pimples. These can cluster together across the face, upper arms, back, and chest.
Not everyone who experiences facial acne will have body acne, but these two skin conditions often occur together. Most people start experiencing acne during puberty, when fluctuating hormone levels cause your skin to produce more oil. Severe acne can also lead to scarring if left untreated. The worst of your acne should resolve itself by your early 20s, but some people continue to break out well into adulthood.
Although acne is fairly common and is not a life-threatening condition, it’s still a source of embarrassment and shame for many people, especially those who have frequent flare-ups. The self-consciousness that acne causes can affect daily activities, making those who experience it reclusive, not wanting to go out in public, and can inhibit activities like swimming, where clothing doesn’t cover up body acne.
Prolonged low self-esteem can have drastic effects on your mental health, leading to depression and thoughts of self-harm. In fact, a Canadian study discovered that having even mild acne can lead to low self-esteem, substance abuse, and depression. If you have acne and recognize some of the feelings of shame or reluctance to indulge in social activities, you may benefit from counseling in addition to treating the acne itself. During puberty, when your emotions are already intense and uncertain, these feelings of low self-worth can be even worse.
Acne has different stages, and you may experience ebbs and flows in its severity. Different forms of acne blemishes include pustules, papules, nodules, cysts, and comedones. Each type refers to a certain kind of blemish, although your acne may consist of a mixture of all of these, depending on the level of infection and inflammation.
Dermatologists diagnose acne in three levels — mild, moderate, and severe — and determine body acne treatment based on the severity.
Mild acne may look like an occasional breakout, such as right before your period starts or when you’re stressed. Mild acne is characterized by a few small bumps or pimples close to the surface that may or may not be inflamed.
Moderate acne has a combination of blackheads and whiteheads, as well as inflammation and redness. Some of the blemishes may be infected. Moderate acne can also appear on the back and chest.
Severe acne combines all the different types of acne blemishes, including deeper lumps, very clogged pores that might be infected, and small cysts beneath the skin. The skin on the face, chest, and back is typically red and inflamed.
Essentially, facial and body acne are caused by hormones and skin oil. The oil-producing glands in the skin are called the sebaceous glands. These glands secrete oils that protect the skin from the effects of the environment and maintain the moisture level of the dermis.
Pores in your skin can become clogged with dead skin cells held in place by sebum. These skin follicles are susceptible to clogging if the dead skin isn’t regularly exfoliated. The buildup of the sebum–skin mixture results in whiteheads and blackheads. These names come from the appearance of the small clogged pores, tiny white or black bumps.
People who have acne are more sensitive to the buildup of certain levels of hormones in the bloodstream. This is why acne is more common during puberty. Sensitivity to the hormones includes excess oil production from the sebaceous glands.
Blackheads and whiteheads are clogged pores that aren’t infected. When clogged pores become infected, it causes larger pimples and pustules. The infection comes from bacteria that are present on everyone’s skin, called propionibacterium acnes. For those not prone to acne, this bacteria usually causes no problems, but for those who are susceptible to acne, the buildup of sebum causes the bacteria to multiply. This, in turn, encourages inflammation and the formation of infected, pus-filled pores.
Hormones from different types of contraception can also bring on acne. People who weren’t previously susceptible to acne breakouts may find that starting hormonal birth control, especially injections or implants, can trigger excess oil production and flare-ups of acne.
People who take performance-enhancing drugs may develop acne as well. Bodybuilders can develop body acne without it showing on the face because of the hormones in the supplements. If you’re taking these, you may wish to consult with a health care provider about safe levels of the drugs.
Hormonal changes, such as those associated with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), may also cause acne flare-ups or an onset of the condition. If you notice that you’re developing acne as an adult, especially if you have unexplained changes in hair growth — either more on the face or scalp hair falling out — then you should see your gynecologist to test for certain conditions that affect your hormone levels.
Other things that can contribute to the development of acne are genetic factors. If you have a family history of acne, you’re more likely to develop it. Certain diseases that cause inflammation can also produce acne flare-ups.
Lifestyle choices, like excessive consumption of chocolate and dairy products, smoking, or environmental exposure can also cause an increase in the production of sebum. This, in turn, can make it more likely that you’ll develop acne.
Although body acne can happen to anyone, there are a few things that increase the risk of developing this condition and a few things you can avoid to help get rid of body acne.
- Constant physical pressure — Wearing things with a chin strap and pressure from a bra strap, shoulder pads, or other tight clothing can lead to body acne.
- Sweating a lot, especially if the sweat is trapped under tight clothing or fabric that isn’t breathable, can cause body acne.
- Certain cosmetics, especially heavy foundations, can clog your pores. This can be a difficult cycle to break. Makeup that you wear to cover the acne may make it harder for acne to heal or lead to further flare-ups. When shopping for cosmetics, look for terms like “oil-free,” “non-acnegenic,” and “noncomedogenic.”
- Your period can also lead to body acne. The increased hormone levels right before your period starts can cause flare-ups.
- Certain medications, like corticosteroids, can cause acne as a side effect.
- Certain foods can cause acne flare-ups. While the rumor that eating greasy food causes acne has largely been debunked, there is some evidence that eliminating dairy can have a positive effect on acne symptoms. Eating processed food isn’t healthy for your body, including your skin, so try to eat a diet rich in whole foods and colorful vegetables.
Picking your skin and squeezing your pimples leads to scarring. It can be tempting to pop large pimples or squeeze your pores, but you end up spreading the acne bacteria to other places on your skin. Allow the blemishes to heal naturally.
Getting rid of body acne can be challenging, as it is a chronic condition and there isn’t a ready-made cure for every person. Often, body acne treatment includes managing the causes of breakouts and reducing their severity. You can work with your health care provider to try different medications to see which ones work best with your body chemistry.
Your health care provider may suggest certain topical medications that include benzoyl peroxide as an ingredient or prescription retinol creams. Other topical medications have antibiotic properties and include erythromycin as an ingredient. Tretinoin-based creams are another option. Your health care provider might recommend cycling through several of these medications, as one may be more effective as your hormone levels change.
Salicylic acid ointments are typically available over the counter and may work for those with mild acne. Your health care provider might also prescribe hormonal treatments to help balance the hormone levels in your body. If you have PCOS, you may benefit from hormone therapy to reduce the expression of certain symptoms including acne.
Body washes with benzoyl peroxide may help get rid of body acne. This chemical kills acne bacteria, but it needs to stay on your skin for at least five minutes to be fully effective. Retinoid creams unclog pores and these, when used in conjunction with benzoyl peroxide, can help reduce acne breakouts.
When you work out, wear loose-fitting clothing and make sure you wear a clean sports bra every time. Change clothes as soon as you can after getting sweaty, washing with your peroxide body wash. Avoid things that put pressure on or chafe your back, like a backpack.
Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, and consider eliminating dairy products. Clean your skin with gentle cleansers, and avoid rough exfoliants such as textured cleansers, exfoliating gloves, and loofahs. Use oil-free cosmetics and lotions.
Avoid picking or popping pimples. You can develop scars from these and spread the acne bacteria on your skin and bacteria from under your fingernails.
When working with your health care provider to start treatment for acne scars, make sure that you tell them if you’re taking isotretinoin to manage your acne.
Light and laser therapy can be used to level the surface of the skin and eliminate or reduce the appearance of body and facial acne scars. Acne scar surgery, when the scar is lifted closer to the skin’s surface, is another option for deeper or larger scars. Microdermabrasion and chemical peels can help reduce the appearance of scars over a larger surface area, although these treatments may take multiple sessions to work.
Fillers, like collagen or your own body fat, can be used to plump the skin and smooth out any dimples or scars. These may have to be done continually, as fillers can fade after a few months as the skin settles back to its original condition.
Skin tightening using radiofrequency is a newer form of treating body acne scars. You’ll receive repeated treatments at a dermatologist’s office and then be responsible for careful at-home follow-up, including consistent sunscreen use.
There are certain scar creams and silicone dressings that may be available over the counter for scar treatments. However, it’s best to consult with your health care provider before using these, and be sure to carefully follow the included instructions.
Cleaning your skin with gentle cleansers and avoiding over-washing can help prevent body acne. Reducing your risks of developing it, like cleaning up right after the gym and eating a healthy diet, can also help prevent it. Understanding the risk factors for developing body acne can help you make decisions to avoid it.
Even mild cases of body acne can make you feel self-conscious and can be itchy and a little painful. If over-the-counter treatments and eliminating risks aren’t working, then a health care provider can work with you to prescribe certain medications or start a hormone therapy regimen.
Talk to your health care provider when you first start developing body acne in order to start treating it before you develop scars.
It may not be possible to completely prevent body acne if you have a genetic predisposition to it, experience dramatic hormonal fluctuations, or have PCOS. However, reducing flare-ups and the appearance of body acne is within your control with careful skin care and lifestyle changes. If you have facial or body acne and feel self-conscious about it, especially if the condition is affecting your daily life, consider visiting a counselor.