What’s the Best Way to Treat Body Acne?

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Q: I’ve noticed that pimples are appearing all over my body, and it’s embarrassing. How can I get rid of them?

Pimples, blackheads and white heads popping up on your back, chest and backside may bring back memories of your teenage years. However, body acne is a common condition for adults, too, said Dr. Caroline Opene, a dermatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles Health.

Acne, whether it appears on your face or other parts of your body, occurs when pores become clogged with oil, dirt and dead skin cells. This can encourage bacterial growth, oil production and inflammation, which cause acne, said Dr. Elika Hoss, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic.

Genetics can also play a role — as can stress, hormonal changes, certain medications like corticosteroids and testosterone, not showering immediately after a workout and using skin care products that contain certain oils, Dr. Opene said.

Acne can appear anywhere on your body, but it’s most common on your back, chest and shoulders, where there are more oil-producing glands, Dr. Hoss said.

While it can be embarrassing, uncomfortable and sometimes painful, dermatologists say there are many ways to treat it.

Several over-the-counter products can effectively treat body acne, experts said.

A top dermatologist recommendation is a benzoyl peroxide wash, which you can find from many brands such as PanOxyl or CeraVe, said Dr. Jacqueline Watchmaker, a dermatologist in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Benzoyl peroxide is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and a keratolytic agent, meaning it can unclog pores, she said.

It’s best to use a product with a strength of 4 to 10 percent, Dr. Watchmaker said. Apply it to damp skin in the shower, leave it on for a few minutes so it has “enough contact time with the skin,” she said, and wash it off.

This retinoid-like medication used to be available only by prescription. But now, you can find it over the counter in gels, creams and lotions from many brands, including Differin.

Adapalene works by improving skin turnover and keeping dead skin cells from building up, Dr. Hoss said. Apply a small amount over acne-prone skin at night.

Topical products with 2 percent salicylic acid can also help treat body acne, Dr. Opene said. These come in sprays, spot treatments and cleansers, and they can decrease swelling, redness and help unclog pores.

“I usually advise benzoyl peroxide for treatment of the juicier acne bumps, and salicylic acid for blackheads and whiteheads,” she said.

Dr. Opene said it’s safe to use sulfur soap, which has been touted by TikTok users as a body acne treatment. It can help by removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores. But it’s not usually as effective as other at-home treatments, and it sometimes smells like rotten eggs, Dr. Watchmaker said.

Treating body acne at home takes time, “potentially up to 12 weeks,” Dr. Hoss said. “So having patience and being consistent” with your skin regimen is important.

It may sound counterintuitive, but dryness can irritate your skin and make acne worse. So it’s important to moisturize regularly, including acne-prone areas, Dr. Hoss said.

Look for body lotions labeled “oil-free” or “non-comedogenic,” which won’t clog pores. Fragrance-free products can also be gentler on your skin.

When working out, wear clean, sweat-wicking clothing and shower as soon as you can afterward, Dr. Watchmaker said.

And avoid body acne triggers like oily skin-care products. If you’re taking certain medications that cause flare-ups, ask your doctor if there is a potential substitute or strategy for handling your acne. While stress itself doesn’t cause acne, taking steps to reduce it as much as you can will help.

Body acne will often improve with over-the-counter remedies. But, if you don’t notice much of a difference after about three months, or the acne is leaving scars, see a dermatologist, Dr. Opene said.

Acne scars can show up as discoloration — pinkness or dark spots, depending on your skin tone, according to Dr. Watchmaker. Uneven texture, skin depressions or elevated bumps that persist are other signs of scarring.

If your acne is “severe and causing pain, tender nodules, oozing, things like that, you’d want to really see a dermatologist sooner rather than later,” Dr. Hoss said.

Depending on your medical history, symptoms and what’s causing the outbreak, dermatologists may prescribe oral medications such as Accutane or antibiotics, or a topical medication like clindamycin, she said.

They might also recommend chemical peels or treatments that use lasers or light, Dr. Hoss said.

However, at-home treatments are typically effective, Dr. Watchmaker said.

“People can get little flares here and there, but usually just with topical products, they can keep it under pretty good control,” she said. “Then, if it continues to be an issue, they can come see a dermatologist.”

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