When I was a teenager, I suffered from terrible back acne. While I did get the occasional breakout on my face or around my hairline (which would exacerbate in my 20s), most of my acne appeared on my back. To make matters worse, it was primarily cystic acne—those hard, sore, underground bumps that take weeks to go away. I visited a dermatologist who gave me oral antibiotics and topical benzoyl peroxide to use on my back. Although the combination did help lessen the acne breakouts, I was left with dry, itchy skin and bleached clothing from the peroxide.
Body acne, be it on your back, neck, or chest, can be such a frustrating condition to treat. The good news is we’ve come a long way from relying on antibiotics and harsh, drying topical creams. In this post, I’ll teach you how to get rid of body acne and share the tips I wish I had known when dealing with my own back acne.
What Exactly is Body Acne?
Body acne is fundamentally the same as the acne that develops on the face, but it can be challenging to treat since it often covers a larger surface area (or be located in hard-to-reach spots).
Just like acne on the face, body acne occurs as a result of overactive oil glands combined with blocked pores caused by dead skin cells that aren’t being shed. These factors create an environment where acne-causing bacteria can thrive and cause those inflamed, red bumps many of us know all too well.
Where Does Body Acne Occur?
The most common places body acne develops are the back and chest. This is because the skin on the back is thicker, and both areas have an abundance of sebaceous glands that produce oil. Body acne can sometimes be found on the arms to an extent, but generally won’t be found on the lower body.
What Type of Acne Occurs On the Body?
When it comes to back and chest acne, most people get either larger pustules (inflamed, red spots with an infection, or “whitehead”) or cysts. Cysts are deep under the skin, never come to a head, and can be painful. It’s important not to pick at these types of cystic blemishes since the body usually reabsorbs the infection from within. Picking won’t make the blemish go away any faster and will result in longer-lasting damage to the skin in the form of hyperpigmentation, also known as post-breakout scars.
Possible Causes of Body Acne On the Back and Chest
As is the case with most acne, the biggest trigger for the body is usually hormones. Stress can also be a trigger since it encourages the production of androgens—a group of hormones that can stimulate oil production. Breakouts on the back and chest can also be caused by tight-fitting clothing—especially when worn during sweaty workouts—or athletic equipment such as pads (this is especially common in teens).
How to Prevent and Get Rid of Body Acne
Here are my tips for getting body acne under control.
Avoid Tight-Fitting Clothing When Working Out
Body acne can’t always be avoided, but a good place to start is breaking habits that could contribute to it. Tight-fitting workout gear is definitely on-trend right now, but it may be triggering your pesky back and chest acne. Clothes that trap heat and moisture against the body for prolonged periods of time and/or create friction should be avoided in favor of loose-fitting clothes.
Learn more about how to care for your skin before, during, and after a workout.
Clean Your Bedsheets Weekly
When someone struggles with acne on their face, I usually tell them to be very diligent about changing their pillowcases to avoid reintroducing oil, dirt, and bacteria onto the skin. The same concept applies to body acne. Cleaning your sheets regularly may minimize oil buildup.
Opt For Sun-Protective Clothing
Sunscreen is tricky because many of them are notorious for making breakouts worse. This is especially true for waterproof formulas, which are meant to stick to the skin. If possible, opt for clothing to protect sensitive areas like your chest from the sun. If you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors, look for a piece of clothing that has a UPF rating (basically SPF for clothes).
Learn why clothing should actually be your first defense against sun damage.
Check Your Hair Conditioner for Panthenol
Remember my back acne from my teen years? It took me a long while, but I eventually realized that it was an ingredient called panthenol (vitamin B-5) in my hair conditioner that was really causing my breakouts. Someone had mentioned it to me and come to find out my conditioner used a lot of it (panthenol was high up in the ingredient listing) and since I was really bleached blonde, I used a lot of it after shampooing. The residue that it left on my back was apparently a big issue for me so I found a conditioner that didn’t have panthenol (not easy to find, by the way) and my breakouts vanished. This certainly may not be the cause of everyone’s acne, but it’s worth considering.
It’s important to remember that panthenol won’t cause breakouts when used in skincare products since the percentage at which it’s included is so low. It’s actually an excellent moisturizing ingredient that I use in my skincare products and I have never had an issue with using it on my face. It’s the extremely high percentage used in hair care products that can cause breakouts for some people. (Learn more about how to read an ingredient list.)
The people most likely to get back acne are those who produce excessive oil. Generally, those who have oily skin on their face will also have excessive oil production on the back. Since oil is a breeding ground for bacteria, one of the ways to reduce back breakouts is to shower often – as much as twice a day if it’s hot out. Keeping the skin clean can make a huge difference.
I also recommend trying to shower as soon as possible after working out. While sweat doesn’t technically cause acne, it can add to a disruption in the normal flow of oil within the pore. If you can’t shower immediately, apply a body cleanser to a damp washcloth and wipe over the affected area.
Use an Antibacterial Cleanser
Every time you shower, I suggest using a powerful antibacterial cleanser to deep clean the skin, remove oils, and reduce acne-causing bacteria. It can be hard to find a body cleanser that fits the bill, so I actually prefer using a facial cleanser for acne-prone skin on the body.
Look for a cleanser that is sulfate-free and uses acne-fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid. The goal is to clean the skin without drying it out.
Be Sure to Exfoliate
Since dead skin cells can clog pores, it’s crucial to gently remove buildup by exfoliating every time you shower. If back acne is your concern, it can be hard to reach certain areas. A simple solution is applying your antibacterial cleanser directly to a loofah or gentle cloth. This physical exfoliation will help slough off dead skin cells that have been loosened by exfoliating acids. Just be sure to use light pressure to avoid causing unnecessary irritation.
I also recommend applying a salicylic acid serum to the affected area twice a week. This will prevent new breakouts from forming and treat current inflammation as well as discoloration from old blemishes.
Apply an Acne Spot Treatment When Necessary
When a blemish appears, you’ll want to calm down the inflammation as soon as possible to encourage healing and prevent a scar. Since body acne tends to be rooted more deeply in the skin and often won’t come to the surface, you’ll want to choose your spot treatments carefully. Look for something like Anti Bump Solution that doesn’t exclusively focus on drying a blemish out. Since the infection is not on the skin’s surface, drying out the skin on top of it will only make matters worse.
If you have regular blemishes on your back or chest where the infection does come to a whitehead, applying a drying spot treatment can be helpful in this case. If you aren’t having much luck with any other spot treatments, benzoyl peroxide could be worth a shot. Using it as a spot treatment will prevent unnecessary dryness.
Schedule a Back Facial
While all of the suggestions listed above are great things you can do for yourself at home, if you’re really struggling to get results, schedule an appointment with a professional. Most spas offer back facials designed to clean out clogged pores. In addition, your esthetician may offer his or her expert advice based on what they observe with your condition.
Learn how to manually extract blackheads and clogged pores from your skin.
Use Medication – If Necessary
If you have been diligent about caring for the acne on your back and chest in the ways described above, including getting back facials, and you’re seeing no improvement, it’s probably time to consult with a dermatologist. They may suggest temporary antibiotics or a topical retinoid. There are also medications that can directly address hormonal imbalances that may be causing your body acne.
These are all my best tips for preventing and getting rid of body acne, especially on the back and chest. I hope you find them helpful on your quest for clear, smooth skin!
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”