It's important to know the primary causes of back acne so you can address the issue head-on.
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Advertisement
back view of a beautiful woman in a white dress
Credit: Ada Summer/Getty Images

Also known as "bacne," back acne can strike anyone at any time. It's very similar to the acne you get on your face—think cysts, pimples, whiteheads, and even blackheads—but instead appears scattered across your back. Sure, you may not have to confront it every single day like you would a breakout on your face, but it still remains one of the more frustrating skin issues considering how difficult it is to treat.

"Acne can appear anywhere there are sweat and oil glands. It occurs when sweat, oil, bacteria, dead skin cells, and dirt gets trapped within a hair follicle and clog those pores. Because our back has sweat glands, acne can also occur there," says Howard Sobel, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Sobel Skin. "Some people are certainly more prone to getting acne, whether it's genetics, diet, or lifestyle."

Even more annoying? Back acne and facial acne are often connected. "Many people who suffer from facial acne also experience breakouts on their chest and back," notes Rebecca Marcus, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Dallas. However, it is possible for some people to experience back acne only and not get it on their face.

Back Acne Causes

The first step in treating back acne is figuring out the cause. From there, you can make the right changes and use the best products to help clear up your skin. 

At the end of the day, back acne is caused by some of the same things that cause facial acne, including excess sebum production and dead skin cells leading to clogged pores. Hormonal changes and the bacteria cutibacterium acnes can also cause pimples to pop up across our backs. 

However, there are a few common culprits that can exacerbate the issue or cause bacne on people who otherwise have clear skin. Here are the biggest offenders so you can pinpoint what's causing your bacne and find out how to treat back acne once and for all.

1 Sweaty Clothes

Many of us have found ourselves with little motivation to change and shower post-workout, but hanging out in our gym clothes is a recipe for bacne.

Sweaty workout clothes are basically a theme park for acne bacteria. "While exercising and sweating alone does not lead to more bacne, staying in dirty workout clothes can be a trigger," says Dr. Sobel. "That's because sweat, bacteria, and dead skin cells clog pores, which is the prime breeding ground for acne."

The Fix: Hop out of those clothes and straight into the shower as quickly as possible after your workout. If showering isn't an option, bring body wipes and change into clean, loose-fitting clothes. Try Bliss Lemon & Sage Refreshing Body Wipes ($8; amazon.com).

2 Hot Showers

"Hot water is not great for your skin, especially if you have any history of eczema or sensitivity," says Hal Weitzbuch, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. "The heat increases how dry your skin is after your shower, and this in turn can increase how sensitive your skin will be to environmental triggers.

The Fix: Lukewarm water is much better for your skin and will not dry it out nearly as much. Also, keep your shower to less than 10 minutes if you can help it, but ideally less than five.

3 Skin and Hair Care Products 

Shampoos and conditioners are particularly notorious for causing back acne, especially if they're formulated with occlusive ingredients such as oil, butters, or other comedogenic substances. "Hair conditioner is meant to be very occlusive, so your hair is hydrated and moisturized," Dr. Sobel says. "However, if it's not rinsed off, it can lead to bacne flare-ups."

The Fix: To curb bacne, wash your body after shampooing and conditioning to rinse away these pore-clogging ingredients. Alternatively, seek out hair care products that are specifically made to prevent body acne, such as SEEN or Vanicream

4 Dirty Towels

"Damp towels that don't have the chance to dry may be harboring organisms from fungus to bacteria," says Dr. Weitzbuch. "If your towel hangs in your bathroom, the door is usually shut closed, and you don't use a fan to circulate air, you may have this issue without knowing it."

The Fix: He recommends checking if your towel is damp before hopping in the shower. If it is, grab a fresh one. Ideally, you should rotate towels daily, but if you're keen on reusing them, make sure your towel is hanging in a bright, breezy space (aka not your bathroom) and is completely dry. You can also use towels that are built to dry faster, such as Brooklyn Bamboo's Absorbent Antifungal Hypoallergenic Towels ($27 for 3; amazon.com).

5 Aggressive Exfoliation

When it comes to acne, we tend to have this "beat it into submission" approach that always backfires. "Over-exfoliating your back with rough, manual exfoliants can cause inflamed skin," Dr. Sobel says. "That leads to a breakdown in its protective barrier, which tricks the skin into ramping up oil production, leading to acne."

The Fix: Take a gentler approach to treating your back acne. Instead of harsh scrubs, Dr. Sobel recommends a daily moisturizer with exfoliating properties, such as AmLactin Daily Lotion ($13; amazon.com), which contains 12% lactic acid.

6 Friction From Clothing and Accessories  

Friction caused by tight clothing, backpacks or purses rubbing against your back, and even sports equipment bags can cause bacne. Dr. Marcus says this is technically called "acne mechanica" and is the result of irritation from the consistent rubbing.

The Fix: Wearing looser clothes and reducing how often you carry stuff on your back can help.

7 Dirty Sheets

Your mother was right, you ought to change your linens way more often than you're probably doing. Our bedding accumulates some pretty grimy stuff, including sweat, dirt, dead skin cells, and product residue.

The Fix: Aim to change your sheets and pillowcase once a week to help prevent back acne.

8 Hormonal Imbalance

It's important to make sure your hormones are balanced in order to avoid androgen stimulation of your sebaceous glands, which are the glands that produce the oil that leads to acne. The biggest hormonal culprit? Testosterone.

The Fix: In addition to avoiding testosterone supplements (which are illegal unless prescribed), it's wise to schedule a consultation with your physician to determine if hormonal imbalance is an issue, and if so, how to address it.

How to Get Rid of Back Acne

If your bacne is caused by one of the external factors listed above, then your best course of action is to remove the culprit. Once the stimulus is removed, it can take about four to six weeks for your skin to clear up. 

But of course, sometimes it just winds down to unlucky genetics. As Dr. Marcus mentioned, people who are acne-prone are more likely to get bacne compared to others. It often simply boils down to how we're made. "Genetics is definitely a factor in acne and determines how a person will respond to external stimuli that may trigger acne," she explains.

But that doesn't mean you're doomed to live with back acne forever. To treat back acne, incorporate an acne-specific body wash to your shower routine. Dr. Marcus' favorites include Neutrogena Body Clear Acne Body Wash with Glycerin ($7; target.com) and PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash with 10% Benzoyl Peroxide ($10; amazon.com).

Gentle chemical peels can also be helpful in clearing clogged pores and removing dead skin cells. Because it can be hard to reach the affected back areas on your own, it's best to have someone else apply the product. 

"When back acne persists despite having incorporated the practices above—or especially if acne is deep and cystic with the potential for scarring—it's helpful to get a board certified dermatologist involved," Dr. Marcus notes. "Prescription treatments such as topical or oral antibiotics, topical retinoids, or even isotretinoin may be necessary to completely clear back acne."