All acne is not created equal. Sure, it’s a common—and frustrating—skin condition that affects 5.6 million Canadians, but it’s complicated. There are so many factors (such as hormones, genetics and hygiene) that can lead to and exacerbate breakouts. And just like with facial acne, figuring out how to get rid of back acne (a.k.a “bacne”) takes patience and means trying different methods until you find one that works.
Back acne is annoying at best and painful at worst, and almost everyone has had it at some point. For some, it causes small whiteheads and blackheads, while others deal with large, painful cystic acne zits. Whether you’ve recently spotted a pimple on your shoulder or back or you’ve been dealing with body acne forever, here is everything you need to know about back acne and how you can eradicate current and future breakouts.
What is back acne?
Unfortunately, the face isn’t the only place where acne vulgaris can emerge. Back acne and facial acne have similar underlying causes and can occur on any body part that has oil-secreting glands and hair follicles. Body acne typically occurs on the shoulders and upper back because these are areas with an abundance of oil glands. Once these pores are clogged with a buildup of oils and dead skin cells, it can attract bacteria that will lead to an inflammatory response, causing everything from pimples to cystic acne.
There are different forms of acne, one of which is non-inflammatory. This includes:
- Whiteheads: These look like typical zits and are called comedones. They appear when skin cells stick together inside your pores, blocking the opening.
- Blackheads: Like whiteheads, blackheads are blocked pores. However, what gives them their colour is the oil. Blackheads have a larger opening at the surface, and when air enters, it oxidizes that oil, turning it dark.
The second form of acne is inflammatory and consists of swelling, redness and pores that are deeply clogged with bacteria, oil and dead skin cells. The most common types of blemishes found on the back are:
- Pustules: Red bumps with a white or yellow tip; they are similar to papules but larger in size and tender to the touch. The results of the inflammation is bacteria.
- Nodules: Causing issues deep within the skin, nodules appear as hard, skin-coloured lumps. They may persist for weeks or even months, with the result of their contents hardening into deep (and stubborn) cysts.
- Cysts: The most severe type of inflamed acne; they appear as big, red and painful bumps, often cropping up in clusters. Similar to nodules, they sit below the surface of the skin and are filled with pus. These are caused by genetics and the hormonal stimulation of oil glands.
What causes back acne?
We know that acne, and back acne, is caused by clogged pores and bacteria, and its formation can be triggered by several things. Primarily, however, it’s activated by a combination of genetics and hormones. Just like with facial acne, some people are more prone to back acne because they have overactive sebaceous glands (a.k.a. oily-skin type); this is related to one’s genetics.
Hormonal changes and imbalances are also major culprits. They can play a large role, which is why you might break out more around your period. According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, acne affects about 90% of adolescents and 20% to 30% of adults aged 20 to 40. This increased risk of acne breakouts during teenagerhood is due to hormonal changes that put oil production into hyperdrive and increase skin cell turnover. This leaves pores more vulnerable to becoming clogged.
The link between diet and acne is controversial, but recent research shows that diet can play a significant role in acne development. Foods to avoid for clear skin include refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, white rice and sugar. Dairy has also been linked to acne flare-ups in teenagers.
It should be noted that the skin on your face is different from the skin on your back, and this has its pros and cons. The skin on your face has more blood supply, which speeds up the healing process; this helps acne and reduces scarring. But the skin on your back (specifically the dermis) is much thicker. This means that your back is more resilient and can handle stronger treatments, scrubs and exfoliants that would be considered too harsh for your face.
How to help care for acne-prone skin on your back and body
As annoying as back acne is, it’s luckily both preventable and treatable. There are some straightforward steps you can take at home that will help manage it. Here's how to care for acne-prone skin on the body.
Like your face, your back is filled with sebaceous glands, which means it produces more of the skin’s natural oil, increasing the likelihood of developing acne. Exfoliating on a regular basis is important since the skin cells on your back may not slough off as efficiently as needed and that pile-up can aggravate acne. Instead of a traditional body scrub, try adding La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Peeling Purifying Gel to your in-shower routine. This micro-peeling face and body cleanser helps remove excess sebum, eliminate impurities and deeply unclog pores leaving the skin texture smoother.
Use a product with salicylic acid
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that works by dissolving excess oil and gently exfoliating dead skin cells. From spot treatments to cleansers, it’s a common ingredient in acne products. It’s oil-soluble, so it glides past any sebum on your skin and plunges into pores making it an ideal ingredient if you’re treating blackheads and whiteheads.
It’s especially great for your back because it unclogs and tightens enlarged pores. Even when you think you’ve gotten your body squeaky clean, try La Roche-Posay Effaclar Astringent Lotion on your back; it can reveal trapped dirt and oil. The salicylic acid-laced toner micro-exfoliates and smooths the skin’s surface and helps to visibly reduce the look of enlarged pores.
Wear clothes that breathe
Avoid tight clothing to minimize friction, especially when you’re perspiring. Certain materials, like those that wick away sweat from the skin, will also reduce irritation. Lighter colours and cotton are ideal, especially during workouts. Also, the friction caused by a backpack or shoulder bag can worsen acne, especially if you’re sweaty.
Acne treatments and masks aren’t just for your face; they can be a targeted way to tackle back acne breakouts too. Reduce the number of acne pimples and help prevent their reoccurrence and heal skin with ingredients like salicylic acid, zinc and niacinamide, which can be found in La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Global Acne Treatment. It immediately acts on acne pimples without drying the skin, targeting all stages of the imperfection life cycle while ensuring perfect tolerance, even on sensitive skin.
Shower after a workout
Working out and sweating can contribute to back acne, so it’s important to shower after engaging in physical activities. It’s also important to change out of sweaty workout clothes as soon as possible and to wash them after every use. To be sure your skin is cleansed of sweat, consider using a cleanser that gently purifies the skin and eliminates impurities and sebum like La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Cleansing Gel. It’s formulated to treat acne-prone and oily skin on your back (and face) without overdrying or irritating.
Use oil-free sunscreen
As if you needed another reason to wear sunscreen every day! Sun exposure can actually worsen back acne and cause post-acne dark spots to become darker. When you choose sunscreen, opt for one that has “oil-free” on the label so you can avoid blocking pores. La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Fluid SPF 50+ Facial Sunscreen has a milky formula that dries to an almost powdery finish—perfect for when you want serious sun protection without looking (or feeling) greasy.
The more you know
However, you may want to consult your family doctor or a dermatologist if these techniques and products aren’t helping to clear up your back acne—or if it gets worse. A dermatologist can help clear up acne in a targeted way with medication and/or specific practices.