Ask a Derm: Dr. Kathryn Dempsey on Getting Rid of Body Breakouts For Good

Woman's chest

There’s plenty of perks to summertime sunshine, but my absolute favorite thing about the season is that I can finally go on outdoor runs again. As someone who lives for that runner’s high, the summer is the best time of year to jog for miles along the river by my New York City apartment. That sweaty hour under the sun brings me joy, mental clarity, and a rush of endorphins — but it also brings me something much less desirable: a sudden flareup of body acne.

Every June (which is usually when I begin venturing back outside for runs), I start breaking out on areas of my body that were smooth and zit-free for months. For me, it’s the notorious bacne that always strikes my shoulder area. But many others experience breakouts all over their bodies — back, chest, and even butt, included. So, what gives? I asked Mobile, Alabama, board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Kathryn Dempsey, to give me a full breakdown of this frustratingly common skin issue. Read on!

Why does body acne happen more often in the summer?

As she’s based in Alabama, where summers can be particularly scorching, Dr. Dempsey sees patients with body acne every day. “Acne stems from pores clogging up and experiencing bacteria overgrowth,” she explains. In the hotter months, people sweat and produce oil at a more accelerated rate. Then, if sebum — which is simply oil that often gets dirt and dead skin mixed in — isn’t sloughed off as frequently as it should be, pores become congested and bacteria builds up, eventually leading to a pimple. 

According to Dr. Dempsey, the most common places for body acne to arise are the back, shoulders, and chest. “Clothing, like sports bras for women, also play a big role in [developing acne],” she says. Tight clothing in particular — such as athleticwear — can trap sweat and bacteria close to the body, resulting in the perfect conditions for flare ups to occur. 

How does body acne differ from acne on your face?

Ultimately, body acne and face acne are generally the same. However, doctors treat face and body acne much differently. “We have to use different products on the back,” says Dr. Dempsey. “When I'm treating back acne, I have to think about how the patient is going to apply it.” Since the back is a much larger surface area than the face and it’s generally hard to reach, Dr. Dempsey recommends washes or sprays for dispensing product. (More on this later.)

“Also, the back and shoulders can typically tolerate [ingredients] more easily than the face,” says Dr. Dempsey. “A lot of our acne medicines, like retinoids, have to be used more sparingly [on the face], but we can use higher strengths for the chest and back.” Since skin on the body is much thicker than the skin on the face, body skin can typically tolerate cosmeceuticals better. 

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]

How can we prevent body acne?

Although I’m often tempted to lay around in my workout clothes after a run (or any particularly sweaty activity for that matter), Dr. Dempsey says this is a huge no-no. “To prevent [body acne], change clothes frequently,” says Dr. Dempsey. “Immediately after sweating, shower and change your clothes. Clothes need to be washed before wearing again, which sounds simple but it’s not always done.” So, wearing loose-fitting or moisture-wicking fabric is vital for those who are active in the summer months and prone to body acne. 

Another source of acne that many people overlook lies in a place that most of us spend at least eight hours in each day: our beds. “You also need to have clean sheets, so change them often,” advises Dr. Dempsey. Luckily, there are now linens available for purchase that are antibacterial. Silvon®, a company that designs bacteria-resistant bedding, has silver (which is known to be antibacterial!) woven into their sheets so their linens won’t need to be washed as often. So, not only do you save time and money at the laundromat, but your skin benefits, too. 

You should also be proactive in avoiding flare ups by washing daily with products to keep skin squeaky clean — regardless of whether or not you have body breakouts at the moment. “I [like the] CLn® SportWash ($32) which keeps the skin really clean and [clear of] bacteria,” says Dr, Dempsey. Another option (and my personal favorite!) is the Fré® Purify Body Clarifying Body Cleanser ($35), which was created specifically for fitness aficionados. It uses apricot seed powder to remove layers of oils, toxins, and sweat that build up on the skin during workouts so pores can remain clear. 

So, prevention didn’t fully work. How can we treat existing body acne at home? 

No matter how hard we try, sometimes all these steps for preventing body acne just don’t work as well as we wish they did. To treat existing body acne, Dr. Dempsey recommends benzoyl peroxide. “Benzoyl peroxide is the best for inflamed acne, so a 10 percent benzoyl peroxide wash [is preferable for severe breakouts],” says Dr. Dempsey. “The one brand I go to is PanOxyl® Acne Foaming Wash 10% Benzoyl Peroxide ($12).” Pro tip: leave the formula on for three to five minutes before rinsing it off in order to ensure it’s effective. Just be warned, benzoyl peroxide is known to bleach linen, so drying off with white washcloths and towels is recommended when using this ingredient.

For those who want a more travel-friendly option for treating body acne, Dr. Dempsey is a fan of the Replenix® Gly-SalTM 5-2 Pads ($23). Since the pads are saturated with glycolic and salicylic acid, they’re able to gently exfoliate the skin and get rid of impurities that often lead to breakouts. Also, Dr. Dempsey suggests trying the Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne® Leave-On Mask ($10) since it contains a lower strength benzoyl peroxide. “You can put this mask on the [affected] areas overnight, sleep in it, wake up the next morning, and wash it off,” says Dr. Dempsey. “But again, you have to be so careful with bleaching [fabrics] when you're doing it as a leave-on.”

Are there any in-office options?

Unfortunately, over-the-counter products aren’t always capable of getting rid of body acne to the extent that we’d like. As a result, Dr. Dempsey says she often pushes patients with more stubborn body breakouts toward prescription medication or antibiotics. She also asserts that in-office procedures can be a tool for treating body acne. “In our office, we do chemical peels, blue light, and red light [treatments] for chest, back, and shoulder acne,” adds Dr. Dempsey.

[Editor’s note: As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new medications.]

Dr. Kathryn Dempsey
M&A Studios

Dr. Kathryn Dempsey

What about treating acne scars? 

Regardless of where you get acne, the risk of scarring is always pretty high. So, it’s best to work on preventing scarring from ever happening in the first place — so don’t pick at any flare ups! However, if the damage has already been done and you’ve developed scars in the form of dark spots, there are still a few options. “Lasers can be done, as well as chemical peels — which are the least invasive and the least expensive,” says Dr. Dempsey. “So, we'll do salicylic acid peels, glycolic acid peels, or a combination of both.” If you’re looking to go the laser route rather than peels, Fraxel® is often a go-to for patients who want major results — stat.

For a more intensive treatment, Dr. Dempsey suggests microneedling. “[Microneedling] is the gold standard right now for acne scars on the face or [body].” Not only can microneedling improve the appearance of acne scars, it also can boost collagen production and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Talk about a win-win!

Product prices may vary from the time this article was written.

Allergan® may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.