Breaking out in red bumps? 6 common causes

Not all red bumps are created equal. Here's what you need to know.

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Curology Team
Aug 05, 2022 · 9 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Here at Curology, we currently focus on the diagnosis and treatment of acne, rosacea, and anti-aging concerns. We do not treat many of the conditions mentioned in this article. This article is for informational purposes only.

Most of us have experienced acne at one point or another, but not all red bumps on the skin are acne. So, if it’s not acne, then what is a red bump on your skin? That’s a big question without a simple answer. There are a lot of skin conditions that cause red bumps on your face. You can handle some by changing your skincare routine and selecting the right skincare products for you. Others you’ll need to see a skincare professional to solve, and we’re here to help you navigate red spots that won’t go away. Let’s get started. 

Five types of red spots on the face

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85% of people between the ages of 12 and 24 experience minor acne.¹ That said, other conditions besides acne can cause red spots to appear on your face. Here’s a list of five possible causes of red bumps that appear on the face, in addition to acne.

  1. Allergies 

  2. Pityrosporum folliculitis 

  3. Keratosis pilaris

  4. Periorificial dermatitis 

  5. Rosacea

Let’s take a closer look at each of these. 

What causes red spots on the face?

You won’t know how to get rid of red spots on your face if you don’t know their cause. The good news is that many conditions can be eased with appropriate skincare. 

1. Acne. We’ll kick off with acne! Most of us have our battles with annoying blackheads and whiteheads. Acne forms when pores get clogged with dead skin cells and excess sebum. Bacteria (C. acnes) thrive on the excess sebum which triggers an inflammatory response—acne!² One of your best defenses against acne is washing your face and using non-comedogenic products. Over-the-counter retinoids (like adapalene) are an option as well as products with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide—just be sure you don’t overdo it and mix and match to many products. Your best bet is to ask a dermatology expert how to tackle your specific condition. 

2. Allergy or irritation from skincare products. Sometimes red bumps are an allergic reaction to certain ingredients (like added fragrances). Allergic reactions or irritation (allergic or irritant contact dermatitis) from products can leave red bumps on your skin that are inflamed, painful, or rash-like.³ A true allergy is rare, but if you’re experiencing irritation from new cosmetics, stop using them to see if your skin clears up. Using fragrance-free and preservative-free products may prevent irritations from coming back.

Dermatology puberty woman looking herself

3. Pityrosporum folliculitis. Sometimes called fungal acne, pityrosporum folliculitis can occur when there is damage to the hair follicle which allows bacteria and fungus to enter. Common causes include friction during activities that involve excessive sweating, shaving, or using a hot tub that has not been properly maintained.⁴  In some cases, small monomorphic papules and pustules form on the forehead into the hairline. Treatment options depend on the type and severity of your condition but can include ketoconazole shampoo or oral antifungals.⁵

4. Keratosis pilaris. This results in tiny acne-like bumps that usually appear on dry skin.⁶ The bumps can range from barely noticeable flesh-colored to red spots that look like a rash. It’s a genetic condition⁷ that, while harmless, happens when your skin doesn’t exfoliate itself as it should. Gentle exfoliation may help relieve keratosis pilaris by removing dead skin cells. Use of a chemical exfoliator such as salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid), lactic acid, or a urea cream may provide some improvement.⁸ 

5. Periorificial dermatitis. This skin condition shows up as clusters of small, itchy red bumps around the mouth, nose, or eyes. The skin may appear scaly, dry, or flaky and swollen, inflamed acne-like bumps may occur.⁹ Periorificial dermatitis is often associated with topical steroid use,¹⁰ so you’ll generally want to avoid the use of all topical or inhaled steroids until the rash resolves. While the cause of periorificial dermatitis is unknown, irritating face creams or lotions or fluoridated toothpaste may provoke it in some people. 

6. Rosacea. This is a chronic skin condition characterized by inflammation that causes persistent redness, flushing, and/or pustules on the face (along with other potential symptoms).¹¹ Patients with rosacea generally report sensitive skin that is easily irritated by sunlight, wind, or skin products. Papules and pustules can form that mimic acne. Rosacea should be diagnosed and treated by a dermatology professional.

Other conditions that can cause red spots 

There are other conditions that can cause red spots. While Curology does not diagnose or treat skin conditions other than acne, rosacea, and certain anti-aging concerns at this time, it’s good to have the information, because knowledge is (you guessed it!) power. 

It’s also important to know when you should see a doctor. Most red bumps that appear on your skin are usually relatively harmless and treatable. But if you suspect cancer on the surface of your skin or another serious condition, don’t hold off on seeing a medical professional. Don’t be shy about scheduling a visit with the doc if you’re uncertain about what’s causing red spots on your face that won’t go away. Other possible causes of red bumps include:

  • Infections (e.g., folliculitis) 

  • Cancer (e.g., basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma)

  • Cold sores

  • Cysts

  • Impetigo

  • Molluscum contagiosum

  • Actinic keratosis

How to treat red spots on the face

How you treat red spots on your face will depend on what's causing them. There’s no magic cure—even if you’re just treating acne. But there are often over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help. 

Topical acne treatment includes gels and creams. Over-the-counter options include ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, retinoids (like adapalene), and salicylic acid. At Curology, we’re big fans of tretinoin. It’s a prescription-strength retinoid that is often effective in treating cases of mild to severe acne. It also improves the appearance of dark spots and other signs of aging. 

Depending on your skin condition, how long it’s been with you, or the underlying cause, your medical provider may also prescribe medications such as oral antibiotics, spironolactone, or isotretinoin.¹² Spironolactone is an anti-androgen hormone pill that decreases sebum production (excess sebum can lead to acne vulgaris). Isotretinoin (formerly known by its brand name, Accutane) is an oral high-dose prescription vitamin A derivative used with severe or treatment-resistant acne. 

8 skincare tips for dealing with red pimples at home

Here are a few tips to show you how to get rid of redness and pimples. With any home remedy, you don’t want to aggravate your skin—especially if it’s already irritated. 

  1. Wash your face every morning and evening using a gentle cleanser. Apply using just your fingertips. Rinse before and after with lukewarm water. 

  2. Pat your skin dry. Use a soft cloth or microfiber to avoid irritating your skin with a rough surface. 

  3. Remove your makeup using micellar water. Micellar water is gentler on your skin, plus you won’t need to scrub. 

  4. Use moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated. Choose non-comedogenic, alcohol-free products. 

  5. Don’t pick at your face! Resist the urge to pop your pimples. In fact, avoid touching your face as much as possible. 

  6. Wear sunscreen every day, even indoors. Be sure to reapply every two hours of sun exposure or after swimming, sweating, or toweling off. 

  7. Use non-comedogenic makeup and consider water-based makeup. Look for dye-free and fragrance-free products. 

  8. Do your best to stay healthy. This means eating well, exercising regularly, and practicing self-care.

When to seek the help of a professional

If you have red spots that don’t go away, cause sensitivity and irritation, or concern you, it’s probably best to see your medical provider. Even if you’re sure you have acne, but it just isn’t clearing on its own, they can prescribe medication that’s stronger or targeted for the specific acne you have. 

Apart from acne, here are some symptoms to watch for that often require a trip to your healthcare provider:

  • Skin bumps change or worsen in appearance 

  • Skin bumps don’t go away or last an unusually long time 

  • Skin bumps cause pain or discomfort

  • You don’t know the cause of the skin bumps 

  • You suspect you have an infection

  • You suspect you have skin cancer 

Some of these conditions can be serious, so catching them early is important. If you’re unsure about what’s causing your skin bumps, especially if they're discolored and irregular, seek help from a medical professional. 

Curology custom skincare

If you’re struggling with red bumps that don’t go away, we feel you. While we don’t diagnose many conditions that could cause red bumps, we can help you with common skin concerns like acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, and texture.

Curology was founded in 2014 by Dr. David Lorschter, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. When you sign up for Curology, we ask you to complete a quiz and tell us about your skin, and one of our licensed dermatology providers will consult with you about your skincare routine. If Curology is right for you, we’ll prescribe you a personalized prescription formula with a mix of ingredients chosen for your unique needs.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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Curology is free to start—you’ll get a personalized formula, plus any of our recommended skincare products, for just $4.95 (plus tax)* to cover shipping and handling. That’s a full skincare routine designed by dermatologists and sent straight to your door. The best part? Curology is custom-tailored to you. That means we can tweak your customized formula over time, and you can always update what’s in your box. Go ahead and start your Curology free trial now.

FAQs

What causes red spots on the face?

  • Acne forms when pores get clogged with dead skin cells and excess sebum. Bacteria thrive on the excess sebum which triggers an inflammatory response.

  • Sometimes red bumps are an allergic reaction to certain ingredients.

  • Pityrosporum folliculitis, sometimes called fungal acne.

  • Keratosis pilaris, the bumps can range from barely noticeable flesh-colored to red spots that look like a rash.

  • Periorificial dermatitis shows up as clusters of small, itchy red bumps.

  • Rosacea is a chronic skin condition that causes persistent redness, flushing, and/or pustules on the face.

How to treat red spots on the face?

Depending on your skin condition, how long it’s been with you, or the underlying cause, your medical provider may prescribe medications such as oral antibiotics, spironolactone, or isotretinoin. Spironolactone is an anti-androgen hormone pill that decreases sebum production (excess sebum can lead to acne vulgaris).

When to seek the help of a professional?

If you have red spots that don’t go away, cause sensitivity and irritation, or concern you, it’s probably best to see your medical provider. Even if you’re sure you have acne, but it just isn’t clearing on its own, they can prescribe medication that’s stronger or targeted for the specific acne you have.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. American Academy of Dermatology. Skin Conditions by the Numbers. (n.d.).

  2. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016)

  3. Usatine, R. P., & Riojas, M. Diagnosis and management of contact dermatitis. American family physician. (2010).

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. Acne-like Breakouts Could be Folliculitis. (n.d.).

  5. Prindaville, B., et al. Pityrosporum folliculitis: A Retrospective Review of 110 Cases. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2018, March 1).

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis Pilaris: Overview. (n.d.).

  7. Agharbi, F.Z. Keratosis Pilaris. Panafrican Medical Journal. (2019, July 30).

  8. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis Pilaris: Treatment. Ibid.

  9. Cleveland Clinic. Perioral Dermatitis. (n.d).

  10. American Academy of Dermatology. Red Rash Around Your Mouth Could be Perioral Dermatitis. (n.d.).

  11. Thiboutot, D., et al. Standard management options for rosacea: The 2019 update by the National Rosacea Society Expert Committee. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2020)

  12. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris. Ibid.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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