When you think of acne breakouts, you likely think of large red blemishes marring the face, but in actuality, acne can strike on many parts of the body. The back is one area that is extremely prone to breakouts, so much so that there is even a common term for acne that appears on the back-- "backne."
Acne is a blanket term that includes blackheads (tiny dark black spots that appear on the skin), blemishes (inflamed red areas that are sometimes called zits or pimples) and cysts (large pockets of inflamed red tissue that lie deep within the complexion). Typically, if you have blackheads on your back, you won't notice that they are there, but blemishes and cysts can be painful, particularly when they rub against your clothing or if located along your shoulder blades or neck, which are frequently moving and twisting.
Back acne forms within the pores, the tiny openings that cover your skin. If these tiny openings become blocked, they can harbor bacteria, which triggers an inflammatory response within your skin. Set in motion by your immune system, this inflammatory response causes the affected area to become red and swollen, forming a blemish or, in severe cases, a cyst.
Your back is particularly susceptible to acne breakouts for a variety of reasons. Often, it is difficult to thoroughly cleanse your back, meaning that bacteria, dried sweat and excessive amounts of sebum (the natural lubricant for your skin) linger on its surface and become lodged in the pores. For this reason, if you have excessively oily skin or work out frequently, you are more likely to develop back acne. In addition, the skin on your back can become dry and flaky during the winter months, causing particles of dead skin to become trapped within your pores.
Problems with back acne can range from an occasional pimple to a continuous cycle of blemishes that form, heal and give way to new breakouts. Although back acne does not pose a risk for health complications, it can result in marks or permanent scarring on your skin and be extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. Fortunately, back acne is a treatable condition and, in most cases, one that you can address on your own.
When dealing with back acne, you can help your skin clear up more quickly by taking good care of yourself at home through some simple, self care tips.
No matter how great the temptation, never pick or squeeze acne blemishes. Although some people believe that popping pimples speeds up the healing process, the opposite is actually true. In fact, squeezing pimples can make the area heal unevenly and increase your risk for scarring.
Wear loose fitting clothing to avoid rubbing on blemishes and creating further irritation.
Opt for natural fibers in your clothes, such as cotton, rather than synthetic materials, to allow the maximum amount of oxygen to reach your back and assist with the healing process.
If possible, switch to baths rather than showers until your breakouts heal as soaking in water helps remove dead skin cells.
In cases of severe cystic acne, the help of your family doctor or a dermatologist may be necessary to treat your back acne. Typically, doctors prescribe topical or oral medications for acne that perform one of three functions:
- Promote exfoliation and boost skin cell turnover. Medications like tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene and isotretinoin speed up the shedding of excess, dead skin, which prevents the pores from becoming clogged and allows blemishes to heal.
- Kill the bacteria that cause infections in the pores.Antibiotics like clindamycin and erythromycin prevent bacteria cells from producing structural components that allow them to survive. As a result, the colony of bacteria within the pores dies and blemishes heal more quickly.
- Adjust hormonal levels in women.In some cases, hormonal imbalances may be contributing to your back acne problems. If your doctor suspects this, you may be prescribed oral contraceptives that contain norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol, which are known to help regulate hormone levels and clear up acne.
All prescription medications for back acne pose a risk for side effects. For topical drugs, the most common side effects are redness, irritation and, in some cases, increased sensitivity to the sun. Oral medications can cause more serious complications, including severe gastrointestinal discomfort, high blood pressure and depression.
Other Clinical Treatments
In recent years, medical scientists and physicians have developed new ways to treat back acne without the use of prescription drugs. Because some of these treatments are relatively new, you may not be able to find doctors who perform them in your area. Among these new techniques for battling body acne are:
- Light treatments involve exposing your back to intense white lighting that destroys bacteria on the skin. The treatments carry a risk for sunburn-like symptoms, particularly in people with fair skin.
- Laser treatments are similar to light treatments, but use a concentrated form of colored light to destroy some of the sebaceous glands beneath the skin. This decreases the amount of oil or sebum produced in the pores on your back and makes acne breakouts less common. The side effects of laser treatments for acne are the same as those for light therapy.
- Chemical peels are useful for treating acne in some patients. With this treatment, a dermatologist or plastic surgeon applies a layer of chemicals to your skin that dissolves and removes dead skin cells. Side effects of chemical peels include redness, swelling and a risk for scarring.
For most cases of back acne, over-the-counter treatments are effective. Many people suffering from back acne prefer over-the-counter treatments because they are more convenient and generally have fewer side effects than clinical treatments.
As you browse the selection of skin care products available on the market today, you'll want to watch for a few key ingredients that are effective at treating back acne breakouts and preventing their return.
Salicylic acid belongs to the class of beta hydroxy acids and was originally isolated from the bark of willow trees. When applied to the skin, salicylic acid works similarly to prescription exfoliation aids, causing your body to shed dead skin cells and prevent them from clogging the pores.
Retinol is derived from vitamin A and functions similarly to retinoid topical drugs like tretinoin. In addition to removing dead skin cells, retinol also helps eliminate clogs from the pores of the back, further speeding up the healing process.
Retinol is derived from vitamin A and functions similarly to retinoid topical drugs like tretinoin.
Natural antibacterials like tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil help eliminate bacteria lurking on the surface of your skin.
Types of Products
A variety of products can be beneficial in treating back acne, especially those that contain the key ingredients listed above.
Cleansers, particularly acne body washes, help remove excess oil and bacteria from the surface of your skin. For maximum effectiveness, invest in a sturdy back scrubber to apply the body wash all over your back. While breakouts persist, avoid scrubbers that have exfoliative surfaces, such as a loofah head.
Treatments are excellent for fighting acne flare-ups when they occur. Some brands make convenient, spray-on acne treatment products that can easily cover your back. To apply a regular cream, gel or solution formulation, you may need to enlist the help of someone else.
Moisturizing is key to keeping your skin balanced while you're treating acne. Opt for a facial moisturizer that is especially formulated for acne-prone skin while your blemishes persist. Once you've treated the problem and blemishes are a thing of the past, you may want to switch to a heavier moisturizing body lotion if you live in an arid climate or during the winter months in temperate zones. Keeping your skin well lubricated will help keep dryness and flakiness from occurring.
Body exfoliators, such as scrubs, are excellent at preventing the return of acne by sloughing off dead skin cells that can invade your pores. You should wait to use at-home exfoliators until your acne blemishes heal, however.