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How to Treat Body Acne and Prevent Breakouts from Happening in the First Place

Photo: Michael Oliver Love

Leave it to the August heat and long days spent in our lightest layers to remind us that summer only exacerbates body acne. But while flare-ups on the most common areas, like the chest and back, aren’t exactly welcome, they’re more manageable than ever thanks to all kinds of targeted treatments, from exfoliating body washes to skin-soothing lotions. To help guide you through the rest of summer and beyond, dermatologists help break down what body acne is, how to treat it and the best kinds of products to have in rotation for smoother, clearer skin all over.

Get wise to body acne

Given that there are many types of marks that appear on the skin, it’s helpful to know what to look for — and where — when identifying body acne, also known as truncal acne. “Body acne is most commonly characterised by cystic acne of the chest, shoulders, back or buttocks,” explains Rita Linkner, a dermatologist at New York City’s Spring Street Dermatology. “All these areas have large sebaceous oil glands which are the root cause of body acne.”

According to Andrew Alexis, assistant professor of dermatology and vice-chair for diversity and inclusion at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, body acne is estimated to occur in more than half of patients with acne. “In people of colour, long-lasting dark spots often occur as a result of body acne and therefore represent an additional factor that impacts quality of life of acne patients, affecting choice of clothing and comfort level having the back, shoulders or chest exposed,” explains Alexis, adding that keloids or raised scars, which are more common in people of colour, can also occur as a result of more severe body acne. Early and effective treatment of acne is key to reducing the risks of these longer lasting potential consequences of body acne.

Learn what causes it

“The causes of body acne are similar to those of acne on the face,” explains Alexis, naming inflammation, increased oil production, hair follicles clogged by oil and dead skin cells, and irritation of the follicle by a specific acne-causing bacterium called Cutibacterium, as the common culprits. In addition to these four factors, body acne is particularly triggered by trapped sweat or oil, he emphasises, hence there being an uptick in summer and it being more common among athletes who consistently sweat — and experience more pressure or occlusion by way of clothing and sporting equipment. Rapid hormonal changes such as pregnancy, menopause, and perimenopause can also contribute to body acne. “The oil glands become hyperactive during these transitional periods,” says Linkner.

Cleanse — but don’t overdo it

If you’re body-acne prone, daily showering — particularly right after exercising — is important. Additionally, using a gentle, acne-fighting body wash infused with ingredients such as bacteria-killing benzoyl peroxide and exfoliating glycolic and salicylic acids is beneficial for treating acne and reducing the appearance of dark spots over time. “Showering or bathing with gentle, pH balanced cleansers when you work out or work or play outdoors, is something I highly advocate!” says Whitney Bowe, New York dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. However, you don’t want to go overboard with cleansing or use harsh products as this can disrupt the skin microbiome and lead to increased irritation and inflammation that worsens body acne. “Many people mistakenly believe their acne is a sign of being ‘dirty’ or unhygienic,” explains Bowe. “They try to rub or scrub away the dirt and deeply ‘clean’ the skin.  Unfortunately, they are doing more harm than good.”

Spot treat, if necessary

In addition to acne-tailored body washes, leave-on topical treatments can be effective in treating flare-ups. Linkner recommends using a benzoyl peroxide-based topical, such as Rodan + Field’s Unblemish Dual Intensive Acne Treatment. “[It] provides sustained anti-bacterial action and also has ceramides to help nourish the skin,” says Linkner, adding that it can be used up to twice daily in those whose acne is flaring. There are also masks, like Soft Services’ new body breakout-fighting Clearing Duo, comprised of a clay mask laced with sulphur, salicylic acid, zinc PCA, and niacinamide and a 1% salicylic acid acne mist for treatment on the go.

Hydrate all over

“Nourished, hydrated skin with an intact barrier is your best defence when it comes to acne and other skin conditions,” says Bowe. In addition to drinking enough water for overall wellbeing and avoiding over-cleansing, sealing in moisture on the skin with acne-friendly, skin barrier-supportive serums and lotions can be helpful. Bowe recommends gentle, nourishing moisturisers with prebiotics and ceramides to help rebalance the microbiome. However, when choosing a hydrator, you want to veer away from thick, oil-rich products, which can be aggravative on the torso area, stresses Alexis.

Consider your lifestyle

Start by minimising friction on your most sensitive, acne-prone parts by “avoiding tight-fitting and occlusive clothing and wearing breathable fabrics — especially for exercise,” says Alexis. Then, consider your diet, sleep, and overall lifestyle, which can have a major impact on body acne. For one, acne is exacerbated by foods that cause inflammation, such as dairy products and refined grains and sugar. “Editing out high glycemic foods and dairy from the diet has been shown in clinical trial data to alleviate acne,” says Linkner. Then, there’s the brain-skin connection. “Stress can absolutely exacerbate body acne,” says Bowe. “Insomnia can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Beauty sleep is real!”

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