With summer in full swing, back acne can be a real mood-killer. If you’re dealing with body acne you are probably not thrilled about exposing more skin. If your bacne manifests as blackheads or whiteheads, then certainly the main concern is an aesthetic one, but if you have cystic acne then the pain can be unbearable. No matter the severity, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide for beating back acne and achieving smoother skin all over the body.
Below, we explain how body acne is formed and then cover what you really care to learn: exactly how to get rid of back acne, recommending both at-home treatments and professional help. I have a few other tips and tricks up my sleeve, and I’ll finish off with prevention tips that will ensure that your back acne is banished along with any dark marks or scarring.
In this article:
- Back Acne Causes & Types
- Back Acne Treatments
- How to Get Rid of Back Acne Scars
- How to Prevent Bacne
- Other Must-Know Bacne Treatment Tips
Back Acne Causes & Types
The face is not the only part of our body where we can experience breakouts. After the face, the back and chest are the other parts of our body where acne frequently shows up.
Body acne can manifest as blackheads, a.k.a. open comedones, which look like little black dots on the skin, whiteheads, a.k.a. closed comedones, which look like little bumps but are not painful or red, and pimples, which are inflamed and painful. If they are deep under the skin they are considered cystic acne, which is usually the most painful but also the hardest to get rid of.
All forms of body acne can make you feel self-conscious, but the latter ones will also make wearing certain clothing painful.
Back acne occurs when our hair follicles (which I use interchangeably with ‘pores’) get clogged up with a mixture of dead skin and sebum. The clog can occur closer to the surface of the skin or a little below it, and it can become infected with the acne bacteria in which case it turns into a pimple, which is inflamed and might be painful.
As dermatology professor Noëlle Sherber told Women’s Health, the back has more oil and sweat glands than other parts of the body, which is why it is the next most frequent area of breakouts after the face.
There are a few factors that lead to body acne, including but not limited to: increased oil production due to age, genetics or hormonal imbalance, over or under-cleansing the skin, and reactions to sweat or comedogenic substances.
Many people find that they begin to experience body breakouts when they take up the gym, because of the sweat and the constant contact with unclean surfaces. Certain foods can be acne triggers for people, with dairy and sugar being very common culprits. A poor body care routine is rarely the initial cause of back acne, but it can certainly make things worse than it would be otherwise.
Lastly, it’s important to note that you might not be suffering from body acne at all, and the culprit might be a fungal infection, in which case fungal treatments will be necessary.
Back Acne Treatments
Figuring out how to get rid of back acne is probably going to be a slow process, especially if you’re going to try gentle home treatments first. Back acne treatments are very similar to facial acne treatments, but the big difference is that they need to cover a lot more space and be easy to apply in hard-to-reach areas. This is why that 1 oz tube of highly targeted spot treatment won’t cut it for bacne care.
Remember that the new skincare products you introduce into your routine will always take at the very least a few weeks to start showing results and that a complete change will take a few months. Try to only introduce one new product at a time, so that if your condition worsens you will know which product was the culprit.
Skincare Ingredients for Body Acne
Note that your basic body care routine should be comprised of cleansing with a gentle, sulfate-free cleanser and moisturizing with a light, non-comedogenic moisturizer. You can incorporate the following acne-fighting ingredients into your routine by finding them in cleansers and moisturizers, or you can choose additional steps that will include them.
• Benzoyl Peroxide (BPO)
This is the best first treatment to try for back acne, especially if you’re hoping for quick results.
Benzoyl peroxide works in a few ways: it is anti-inflammatory, so it can bring down the swelling and reduce the pain of active breakouts, it is antibacterial, so it kills the acne bacteria and prevents further spreading of it, and it is keratolytic so it helps to dislodge the dead skin cells that clog up the pores.
It works best in leave-on creams, but it’s still quite effective in cleansers as long as you let the cleanser sit on your skin for 2-5 minutes. It is just as effective at 2.5% as it is at 10%, so if you pick up a high percentage BPO cream you can simply mix a bit of it with your moisturizer right before applying.
The main drawbacks of benzoyl peroxide are that it can dry out or irritate the skin, which is why moisturizing or diluting it is important, it can bleach fabric if it comes into contact with it, and it makes the skin more prone to sunburn.
• Chemical Exfoliants
This category includes salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and a few other acids are great bacne treatments. They can be your only back acne treatment if you’re only dealing with a couple of pimples or just whiteheads and blackheads, although you might want to combine them with another treatment if your bacne is more severe.
Salicylic acid is the best chemical exfoliant to start with because it’s gentle, it can cut through oils, and in general, it seems to have the best results for clearing breakouts. It is best in leave-on formulas like sprays and lotions, and seems to be only slightly useful in cleansers.
Glycolic acid is a bit more heavy-duty, although it works best when the skin is totally free of oils. It seems to work very well in combination with benzoyl peroxide, at least according to Acne.org. Other chemical exfoliants are less common in body acne products, although you might run into lotions with lactic acid, which is gentler than both salicylic and glycolic acids, but doesn’t penetrate through oils.
If you do happen to choose a cleanser or physical scrub that contains these chemical exfoliants, let it sit on your skin for a few minutes before you rinse it off, to allow these ingredients to work.
• Tea Tree Oil
This is an essential oil that seems to have a wonderful ability to reduce body breakouts. It has the ability to kill the back acne bacteria, and studies on the skin have shown that a 5% solution of it can be just as effective at treating breakouts on human skin as benzoyl peroxide.
The efficacy of tea tree oil hasn’t been studied as thoroughly as other acne treatments, but many people suffering from acne find that it is very effective. It is often added to other back acne treatments, but you can also buy the essential oil on its own and mix a drop of it into your moisturizer right before application. Always make sure to dilute it before applying it to your skin, as it can be very irritating at full strength.
Niacinamide is not a great acne treatment on its own, but it’s a wonderful addition to a body acne-fighting routine, especially in lotions. This wonderful ingredient does it all – it’s an antioxidant, it can brighten the skin, it reduces transepidermal water loss, but most importantly, it seems to be able to reduce oil production in the skin.
Many people find that adding it to their routine gives great results. It is present in a few of the body lotions I’ve recommended.
Salon Bacne Treatments
As much as I love a good salon treatment, I gotta admit that it’s not my first choice when it comes to issues like bacne. A salon treatment can definitely help speed up the healing of your back acne, but it is no substitute for a good daily skincare routine.
If you already have a favorite salon, you can ask your facialist if they’d be willing to convert one of their acne-fighting facials or peels into a back acne treatment. Aestheticians have access to peels with higher percentages of acids that can give more intense results.
A peel with trichloroacetic acid (TCA) would be especially useful for giving a very deep exfoliation, and it can be followed with a clay mask to deep clean the pores. If you’re only dealing with the upper part of your back the treatment shouldn’t be much more expensive, but if a large part of your back is covered in breakouts you might have to pay double or triple the amount of a regular facial, since your aesthetician will have to use more product.
If your body acne manifests primarily as blackheads and whiteheads, and you experience very little inflammation, your aesthetician might recommend a microdermabrasion, which is a very strong and targeted physical exfoliation. They might also offer to do extractions, which will help clear deep blackheads from your back.
How to Get Rid of Back Acne with a Dermatologist’s Help
If your bacne is very severe and seriously impeding your quality of life, or if none of the at-home solutions seem to do anything, then don’t hesitate to visit a dermatologist. Acne is a real skin disease so there is nothing shameful or vain about speaking to a doctor about it.
There are a few things your dermatologist might prescribe based on the condition of your skin.
- They might suggest hormone-regulating medication or birth control in order to lower the amount of male hormone your body produces and thereby reduce oil production.
- They might prescribe you topical back acne medication that is not available over the counter, like tretinoin, clindamycin, or erythromycin.
- They might prescribe oral antibiotics.
- They might suggest you start taking isotretinoin, which is colloquially referred to as Accutane.
How to Get Rid of Back Acne Scars
Once you’ve cleared up those pesky blemishes on your back and shoulders, you might be dismayed to notice that you’re left with some scarring and pigmentation. The process of getting rid of hyperpigmentation is a long one, while scarring can be even harder to eliminate.
However, there are some very effective treatments. Be aware that it’s important to combine these treatments with a routine where you regularly cleanse and moisturize your skin!
- Make sure to stick to a preventative body care routine that will keep the bacne from returning.
- Using an AHA-based lotion or spray a few times a week will give a deeper exfoliation than a physical scrub, and will allow better skin cell renewal. This is a key part of getting rid of pigmentation.
- You can spot-treat with a brightening face serum that contains at least 10% ascorbic acid (a strong form of vitamin C) or hydroquinone.
- If you go out in the sun, make sure to apply an adequate amount of sunscreen. Any unprotected sun exposure will darken dark marks.
- If you are most dealing with textured scars, then the best treatment is a retinoid. It’s hard to find body products with retinoids in them, so it is best to simply pick up a facial treatment like Differin and use it as a spot treatment.
- You can also visit a dermatologist, who may recommend a more intense treatment like microneedling or laser.
How to Prevent Bacne
Adopting a bacne busting skincare routine will help you maintain the health of your back and to prevent future breakouts.
- Hop in the shower and cleanse your skin shortly after every workout, or before you go to bed every night. Stick to cool or lukewarm water, and use a sulfate-free cleanser.
- You can choose to use a medicated cleanser like one of the ones I’ve recommended above, but a regular sulfate-free cleanser should also work to keep your skin clear of excess sebum and free of bacteria. You can use a washcloth to help you reach your back, but make sure to wash it after every shower or it will hold bacteria.
- Make sure to exfoliate your skin a few times a week to prevent the dead skin build-up that contributes to clogged pores and back acne. You can use a physical scrub if you are no longer experiencing inflamed bacne, but if you are still dealing with some acne-related irritation, then it is better to use a lotion or spray exfoliant that contains glycolic or salicylic acid.
- Moisturizing after every shower is very important because it is much easier for the skin to become reinfected with acne if it is dry and dehydrated. You can choose a medicated moisturizer (one with glycolic, lactic or salicylic acid will be a great two-in-one moisturizer and exfoliant) or just opt for a gentle, non-comedogenic body lotion.
- You don’t need to worry about finding oil-free moisturizers since most oils used in skin care are not going to cause acne. Just avoid moisturizers that have high-oleic oils, like almond oil or olive oil towards the beginning of their ingredient list.
- You can maintain use of an anti-acne body spray with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide even after your breakouts fade, as they work well both to treat back acne as well as to prevent it.
Other Must-Know Bacne Treatment Tips
These general tips will help you maintain good hygiene and best practices both to help body acne clear up more quickly and to prevent it in the long term.
- Avoid hot showers, and stick to lukewarm water. Hot water damages and dehydrates the skin, which makes it easier for the acne bacteria to infect it.
- Be careful with loofahs, body brushes, and shower mitts. If they are too abrasive, they can irritate your skin while you are suffering from active breakouts. Additionally, brushes and loofahs are very difficult to clean, so they might end up holding on to bacteria and re-infecting your skin.
- The same warning applies to body scrubs! I recommended a few on my list, but they are better for back acne prevention and for clearing blackheads. If the skin is compromised because of inflamed breakouts, then it is better to avoid anything that will physically abrade the skin, particularly if there are pimples that look like they might pop, as this will only spread bacteria around.
- An anti-inflammatory bath mix can help momentarily alleviate the pain and irritation associated with more severe body acne. Opt for adding relaxing epsom salt or soothing oatmeal flour to your bath once a week, along with a few drops of tea tree oil.
- Switch to a fragrance-free laundry detergent and don’t use too much of it. Harsh remnants of laundry detergent on your clothes can irritate the skin and increase breakouts.
- That being said, washing is very important. Wash anything that comes into contact with your body regularly, including clothes (bras in particular!), bedding, and towel. Wash them after every time they come in direct contact with your back, especially during active breakouts. Workout clothes, in particular, should be washed after every visit to the gym.
- Be careful with shampoos, conditioners and other hair products. In the shower, make sure to rinse them away thoroughly and then to rinse your back for good measure. Ensure that your hair doesn’t touch your back if you use heavy styling products.
- Avoid wearing very tight clothing for too long, as they can irritate the skin and trap in impurities.
- If you have an event coming up where you would like to wear a backless garment, you can definitely consider applying some non-comedogenic body makeup that won’t rub off on clothing. It will make you feel more confident!
Photos via @rumineely, Instagram