Updated July 08, 2014.
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com’s Medical Review Board.
Blackheads and pimples don’t only appear on the face. For some, acne breakouts can be more widespread, affecting larger areas of the body. Besides the face, acne commonly occurs on the back, chest, neck, shoulders, and upper arms. Many people experience acne in areas other than the face.
Who Gets Body Acne?
Back acne, sometimes called “bacne,” is fairly common among acne sufferers. Back and body acne affects males and females, teens and adults. However, body acne is more common, and often more severe, in males.
Most often, acne begins on the face. As acne progresses in range and severity, it begins to affect other areas of the body as well. Not everyone with acne will experience breakouts on the body, but those with body acne nearly always have acne on the face, too.
What Causes Back and Body Acne?
Body acne is caused by the same factors that trigger facial acne: overactive oil glands, excess dead skin cells, and a proliferation of acne-causing bacteria. Oil and dead skin cells become trapped within the follicle, or pore, and create a blockage. This blockage becomes a blackhead and may progress to a pimple , if bacteria invade.
Body acne is generally confined to the back and upper torso. Like the face, these areas have more sebaceous glands per square inch than other areas of the body, so the follicles are more likely to become plugged with excess sebum and dead skin cells.
It’s not likely that certain articles of clothing or gear cause body acne. However, the friction caused by certain apparel may aggravate existing cases of body acne. Rubbing or pressure on the skin can irritate already inflamed follicles and exacerbate breakouts. It’s best to avoid sources of friction when you’re trying to heal body acne. Sources of friction include: tight-fitting clothing, too-snug collars, backpacks, purse straps, and athletic pads or gear. Students, especially, may want to carry their books in a hand held bag, instead of wearing a heavy backpack.
Sweat can also irritate body acne. To minimize irritation, shower as soon as possible after exercising. Do not scrub the skin, even with a loofah or body puff. Remember, you want to avoid friction. A thorough, but gentle cleansing — preferably with a salicylic acid wash — is better than a vigorous scrubbing.
Effects of Body Acne
Like facial acne, body acne can fill its sufferers with a sense of shame and embarrassment. Many patients take great pains to cover affected areas. Clothing is chosen so as to reveal as little breakouts as possible. Tank tops and sleeveless shirts are passed up. Women may take special care to make sure their shirts aren’t cut so low as to reveal acne on the chest. Men with back acne will often avoid taking off their shirts altogether.
Even participation in recreational hobbies or activities can be limited because of discomfort about the skin. Activities, such as swimming, are often not done. Body acne can be especially hard on teens when they must undress in locker rooms.
Physically, body acne can also cause deep scarring. The greater the inflammation, the higher the chance for developing lasting scars.
Treatments for Body Acne
Mild body acne often responds to good daily skin care and over-the-counter treatments. Try using a salicylic acid wash every day. Pads containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can be wiped over affected areas. You may also want to try a lotion containing an alpha hydroxy acid, such as glycolic or lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids help to speed cell turnover, rapidly exfoliating the skin and reducing the number of pore blockages.
When treating body acne, you typically can use several acne treatment products at once without causing excessive irritation (for example, a salicylic acid wash plus a benzoyl peroxide lotion). The skin on the back, chest, shoulders, and upper arms is tougher than facial skin, and can generally tolerate more powerful treatments. However, the skin on the neck is fairly sensitive. Use treatment products slowly and carefully in this area. If you notice excessive irritation, dryness or peeling on any area of the body, scale back or discontinue use of the treatment product, and consult your doctor.
Moderate to severe forms of body acne can be difficult to control, and need to be treated by a physician. Topical and oral medications are often prescribed. Common treatments include:
Accutane is used for very severe forms of acne, or after other treatment options have been exhausted, as it carries significant potential side effects.
As with facial acne, it takes time to control body acne. You will most likely have to try several treatment products or medications before finding the one that works best for you. Fortunately, most cases of acne can be successfully cleared, given time and patience.
“Questions and Answers About Acne.” National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Jan 2006. National Institutes of Health. 26 Sep 2007.
“What is Acne?” AcneNet. 2007. American Academy of Dermatology. 26 Sep 2007.