Most people have relatively well-formed opinions about how to handle the average face pimple. Whether you’re devoted to retinols, double-cleanse like your life depends on it, or resort to popping, you likely have a game plan developed back when puberty first made your hormones go haywire. Less talked about however, is body acne, especially when it sets up shop on your back.
Bacne happens in part because acne can happen anywhere on your body where sweat glands are present. But how do you treat it, especially if it crops up in hard-to-reach places? And how much does working out actually contribute to your skin woes? We tapped five pros for their tips.
How does bacne form?
“Acne tends to develop in areas where we have a high concentration of oil glands,” Joshua Zeichner, a Manhattan-based dermatologist, explains. That’s why your face, chest, and back can be prime targets for pus-filled mounds and the red bumps that mark inflamed hair follicles (otherwise called folliculitis). “High levels of oil production get trapped within the pores, promoting an overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria and inflammation,” he explains. While he sees blackheads and whiteheads on patients from time to time, he notes they’re less common on your chest and back than they can be on your face.
Do I need to treat bacne differently than I do face acne?
Yes and no! Because acne forms the same way, no matter where it crops up, your favorite skin-care products can pull double-duty on pimples that appear south of your neck.
Dermatologist Dendy Engelman recommends products that contain one of the two big acne-fighters: benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is especially effective because it dissolves your skin’s keratin. “It actually can penetrate into the pore to dissolve dead skin-cell buildup,” she explains. Benzoyl peroxide kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation around the infected pore. Both ingredients also help your skin shed its top layer, which helps keeps your pores clear and free from future breakouts.
Zeichner points out that it’s crucial to let whatever product you’re using have enough time to penetrate your skin. “You should apply your cleanser, let it sit, lather it up while you sing the alphabet, then rinse off,” he says. And just like pimples on your face, you should try to avoid picking at bacne if you can.
The main difference is that, unless you’re particularly flexible, it can be tough to reach a zit right in the middle of your back. Luckily, they make sprays for that.
Can I blame my bacne on exercise?
Contrary to what you may have learned in your middle-school locker room, working out has less to do with your bacne than you think.
“Exercise itself is great for you and does not cause acne,” Iris Rubin, dermatologist and founder of SEEN, explains. However, she notes, “sweat can mix with bacteria on the skin and dead skin cells, which clogs pores.” It’s that recipe that causes body acne, not the sweat itself.
Every dermatologist told the Cut that it’s crucial to work out in clean clothes, and to at least change your clothes as quickly as possible after your workout, if a full-on shower isn’t possible. (Yes, your yoga pants can be giving you butt acne). Rubin also recommends using a clean towel to wipe sweat away as you work out, and if you’re working out indoors, wipe down equipment before and after using it, if you can.
Will exfoliating help my bacne?
You can’t scrub away acne, but gentle exfoliation (key word: gentle) can be a helpful way to remove it. Whether it’s a physical exfoliation, like using a brush, or a chemical one, Rubin says exfoliating once or twice a week can be a good idea. “We know the cause of acne is when the pore gets clogged with dead skin cells and bacteria, and exfoliation can help with sloughing off those dead skin cells so they don’t get trapped in the pores,” she explains.
When it comes to chemical exfoliants, there are two key ingredients to look for, and King has some useful information about how they work. “Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid,” she explains, and both beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are used for chemical exfoliation of the skin. “They dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface so the skin will gently shed, revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath. The difference is that while AHAs are water soluble and work on the surface of the skin, BHAs are oil soluble and can penetrate into pores, so they are able to work on the surface of the skin as well as inside the pore.”
If your skin is really red and inflamed, however, Rubin recommends that you avoid exfoliating since you can disrupt your skin barrier and just make that inflammation worse.
What towels should I use after exfoliating?
When it comes to towels and acne, there are a few things to note. While Hadley King, an NYC-based dermatologist, explains that the fabric itself doesn’t have an impact on acne, she recommends looking for white or bleach-resistant towels. “Most acne washes contain benzoyl peroxide, which can bleach fabric, and salicylic acid can also stain towels,” she says.
Rubin also explained the importance of making sure towels dry completely and don’t remain moist between uses. “When towels are damp, they can harbor bacteria, but they can also have residue from all kinds of products as well, which can potentially contribute to acne,” she says. Which means you can’t skip laundry day!
5 Other Products to Use
If you have stronger acne and are looking for something affordable, the zingy grapefruit scent of this body wash will wake you up, while the salicylic acid (at a 2 percent concentration) will help keep pimples at bay. Don’t forget to sing the alphabet as you lather up.
With a 10 percent benzoyl-peroxide formulation, this is for the toughest of acne clusters. The maximum-strength cleanser can be used to treat breakouts and inflammation on your face and your body.
These zit stickers have a wider surface area so you can slap a few on your back. They’re sticky enough to leave on overnight or as you go about your day.
Using this spot treatment on your back will require the assistance of a friend or some real dexterity. The combo of 5 percent benzoyl peroxide, tea-tree oil, and a less irritating form of salicylic acid helps kill acne-causing germs and reduce inflammation.
The original and much-beloved retinoid treatment is a favorite for a reason. The OTC retinoid has long been the strongest acne treatment you can get without a prescription and helps promote cell turnover and unclog pores.
This article was originally published February 13, 2019. It has been updated throughout. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.