Aug 10, 2022 · 6 min read
Body acne is super-common, but obviously that doesn’t make breakouts any less annoying. In fact, it can be even more stubborn than zits and blackheads on your face—so it may take more than just an anti-acne cleanser or body wash to beat “backne.” Whether you're experiencing back acne or chest acne, we're here to offer helpful advice and product recommendations to help you get rid of body acne.
If you’re wondering if body acne is normal, the answer is yes! Acne vulgaris affects around 85% of teenagers, and it can occur in adulthood as well, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.¹ While it’s common on the face, it can also appear elsewhere on your body. There is absolutely nothing wrong with body acne, so don’t feel bad if you experience this skin condition. Just know that it is treatable—though sometimes it takes some patience to reduce this type of acne.
It is important to recognize that there are some key differences between face and body acne. The most obvious difference is the location: facial acne shows up on the face, and body acne shows up on the chest, back, and shoulders (Spoiler: "butt acne" isn't actually acne). There can also be differences in what’s contributing to the acne. For example, a sweaty sports bra rubbing on the shoulders might contribute to body acne, but wouldn’t impact the acne on your face.
Acne is caused by the same predominant factors, no matter where it shows up. “Many factors contribute to an acne breakout,” says Curology provider Elise Griffin, PA-C. Basically, acne forms when the pores become clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil (aka sebum), she says. The amount of sebum that your body produces can be impacted by several factors, including stress, diet, and hormones, which can all increase oil production. Once pores become clogged, Cutibacterium acnes (a type of bacteria that normally lives on our skin) can accumulate. This causes an inflammatory response when the body’s immune systems responds to the thriving bacteria—leading to acne!
Here are a few common causes of body acne:²
Yep, exercise and sweat can contribute to acne. Working out can cause a buildup of sweat on your skin. “Sweat, heat, and friction can create a nice environment for the normal bacteria and fungus that live on our skin to blossom,” explains Curology provider Jake Swanson, PA-C. “A quick shower or even just a quick rinse can reduce the chances of body acne blooming.”
The rubbing, tugging, and chaffing from an athletic uniform, workout gear, or even a backpack can also lead to acne mechanica.
Certain foods—especially dairy products like cow’s milk and highly glycemic foods can contribute to the development of acne in some people.³ Keeping a food diary may help you get a better understanding of which foods may be having a negative impact on your skin.
If your clothes, pillowcases and sheets are washed with pore-clogging ingredients, that may contribute to body acne. Switching to a laundry detergent without sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate may help some people with body acne. Additionally, fabric softeners (including dryer sheets) can leave a waxy residue on fabric that may clog pores in acne-prone people. Although this correlation hasn’t been clinically proven, stopping the use of fabric softeners may also help.
Body wash, lotions, and even makeup can contain potentially pore-clogging ingredients. So, unfortunately, a product that you’re using to try to improve your body acne (or cover it up) might accidentally make it worse. If a product contains any known comedogenic ingredients, we recommend looking for an alternative.
Fungal acne, although not technically acne, might appear on areas of the body other than the face. Microorganisms like pityrosporum, a type of fungus that normally lives on our skin, thrive in warm, moist areas, and these guys can contribute to inflammation. If you tend to have a sweaty back, for example, fungus will love it—and that could lead to breakouts on your back (AKA backne).⁴ Tight clothing that doesn’t let your skin “breathe” can give these microbes an even better environment to thrive in. Opt for clothing with a looser fit that won’t trap heat or cause friction on your skin. And most importantly, cleanse or rinse your skin ASAP after breaking a sweat to wash away sweat and buildup.
Skin irritation can trigger or exacerbate breakouts. If you can, avoid or limit harsh cleansers and physical methods of exfoliation such as loofahs and back brushes. Be gentle on your skin!
Body acne, as previously mentioned, is acne that appears in places other than your face. It can also manifest as all kinds of acne lesions—closed comedones (whiteheads), open comedones (blackheads), papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts. That said, body acne doesn’t appear everywhere on your body. Here are the areas of the body where you might notice breakouts pop up.
Back acne (or bacne) is acne that appears on the back and shoulders. It can be especially prevalent in areas that your hair or clothes touch. For example, bra straps can contribute to shoulder acne, and long hair can contribute to upper back blemishes, especially if your hair products contain comedogenic ingredients.
Body acne can also occur on the chest for the same reasons as back acne. Chest acne can develop from a number of factors, including fluctuating hormone levels, bacteria, fungus, and lifestyle factors.
While you may sometimes find red bumps along your bikini line, that isn’t actually acne—they are likely ingrown hairs or folliculitis, inflammation or a skin infection that develops in the hair follicles. It can be triggered by tight clothing, shaving, or friction—especially when your skin is damp and hot (like when you’re sweating).⁵
The same is true for butt “acne”—it’s not acne at all, but most likely folliculitis. To help prevent folliculitis, try to wear workout clothes that don’t rub, and remove sweaty clothes when you’re done exercising.
Body acne can also appear on the neck, although this is sometimes lumped in with facial acne.
Body acne can be persistent, and the amount of time it takes to treat acne can vary by person. Then, once you’ve found a treatment that works for you (more on that in a minute), you may need to continue treatment to help prevent new body acne from developing. Even if you’ve significantly reduced your body acne breakouts, you might still experience an occasional blackhead or pimple from time to time. Remember, you’re human and acne is totally normal!
That said, these are steps you can take to help prevent it:
Shower after exercising and remove sweaty clothing ASAP.
Use non-comedogenic hair and body products (like body lotion or makeup) to help prevent your pores from getting clogged.
Avoid over exfoliating with loofahs and body brushes.
Check your laundry products for potentially pore-clogging ingredients.
Cut back on dairy and sugar (at least temporarily!), which could be contributing to your acne.
Using an acne-fighting body wash or soap can also help to keep body acne at bay if you’re especially prone to breakouts—more on that below!
Body acne is common on your chest, shoulders, and back because the sebaceous glands that produce oil in our skin are more prominent in these areas. The skin on your body is typically tougher than the skin on your face, so it can be more difficult to get rid of body acne, but your body can generally tolerate stronger ingredients than your face. There are a few key topical ingredients that treat and help prevent body acne.
We recommend starting with a zinc soap because it fights that acne-causing pityrosporum fungus that lives on the skin.⁶ Many people see a difference after just a few weeks of replacing their normal body cleanser with a zinc soap! To make sure the zinc has time to sink into your skin and get to work, leave the soap suds on your skin for about a minute before rinsing it off. This is a good chance to sing shower karaoke or plan what you’re going to have for dinner.
Hot tip: Keep your zinc soap on a perforated holder so it can drain and dry in between uses. You don’t want your zinc soap to live in a damp corner of the tub—that may lead to more “bad” microbes! Give your soap a quick rinse before using it, to be on the safe side.
The right product matters, as some ingredients can clog pores and make a breakout worse, so keep an eye on the labels to double check ingredients. Avoid zinc soap bars that contain cocoa butter or coconut oil, because those can clog pores. Look out for isopropyl myristate, laureth-4, and sodium lauryl sulfate on the ingredients list—these can also contribute to acne breakouts for some people.
Give any one of these zinc soaps a try:
Benzoyl peroxide for body acne is also a great option. This ingredient is one of the most effective acne-fighting ingredients available without a prescription, but it can be kind of drying (at least at first). Still, a benzoyl peroxide body wash is an effective way to get the anti-acne benefits. Just be careful—benzoyl peroxide can bleach your clothes, sheets, and towels, so make sure you fully rinse before getting out of the shower.
Give this benzoyl peroxide product a try:
If the zinc pyrithione soap and a benzoyl peroxide cleanser aren’t cutting it, look into adding a product with salicylic acid to your skincare routine. Salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid) is a common over-the-counter acne treatment available in cleansers, spot-treatments, serums, etc. BHA is especially helpful for oilier skin types. Among other benefits, BHA helps unclog pores and reduce inflammation to fight acne.
The acne body wash by Curology is dermatologist-designed to treat and help prevent acne, plus washes your pores of regular dirt and grime. Our body wash is formulated with 2% salicylic acid, just enough to be tough on acne but kind for all skin types—so you can use this lightly foaming goodness every day.
Acne wipes with salicylic acid are perfect for tossing in your gym bag for a post-workout freshening up—but these may be irritating for some, so proceed with caution if your skin’s on the sensitive side.
You can also consider adding sulfur soap to your routine as well. Try not to mind the scent—it can smell kind of like eggs. Sulfur can help break down dead skin cells and has antibacterial properties.⁷
Here are two sulfur skincare products that may help:
De La Cruz Sulfur Ointment 10% Acne Medication Ointment (apply a thin layer, allow it to sit for 10 minutes, and then wash it off)
If the body breakouts on your chest and back are particularly stubborn, and the combination of zinc, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur don’t seem to improve things, don’t give up! It may be time to consult with a dermatology provider for a personalized treatment. Body acne is treatable, but it can be persistent. If your breakouts are causing acne scars or psychological distress, it’s time to see a healthcare provider.
The best way to banish body acne is to be consistent and patient. Give your skin at least a month or two to catch up and show improvement with each new product or routine change. If you experience any irritation, back off until your skin recovers—overdoing it will just make things worse. Your dermatology provider may recommend using over-the-counter or prescription treatments (like topical retinoids) to treat your body acne, and in certain cases, they may recommend oral isotretinoin, a vitamin A derivative that is used to treat severe acne.
At Curology, we provide full-service skincare. We pair you with your own licensed dermatology provider, who can not only prescribe active ingredients and discuss treatment options, but can also serve as a guide through your skincare journey and answer any questions you may have.
If you’re feeling unsure about what your skin needs to beat breakouts, why not consider signing up for a free trial with Curology?* Just take a quick skin quiz and snap a few selfies and one of our licensed medical providers will evaluate your skin. If Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a 30-day supply of your personalized prescription formula with a mix of active ingredients chosen for your unique skin concerns, plus any of our recommended products (like the acne body wash!), for free—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.
Andrea L. Zaenglein, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, May 1).
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Back acne: how to see clearer skin. (2021, December 10).
Alicja Kucharska, et al. Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (April 2016).
Richard M. Rubenstein and Sarah A. Malerich. Malassezia (Pityrosporum) Folliculitis. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (March 2014).
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Acne-like breakouts could be folliculitis. (n.d.).
Mrinal Gupta, et al. Zinc Therapy in Dermatology: A Review. Dermatol Res Pract. (2014, July 10).
Helen M. Torok, et al. Combination Sodium Sulfacetamide 10% and Sulfur 5% Cream With Sunscreens Versus Metronidazole 0.75% Cream for Rosacea. Therapeutics for the Clinitian. (June 2005). *Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C