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Acne on arms – causes, symptoms and how you might treat it

Acne on arms – it’s surprisingly common. This skin condition that causes spots and oily skin mostly affects the face, back and chest, however, lots of people also experience acne on their arms.

Acne affects up to 80 per cent of people at some point in their life, so you’re far from alone. Spots on the arms are most common on the upper arms, close to the shoulders, as these areas have the most sebaceous glands and are prone to becoming oily.

But why does acne appear on the arms, and what can be done to treat it?

What is acne on arms?

Acne vulgaris is the skin condition behind all forms of acne – including acne on the arms. It can manifest as pimples or spots that can appear oily or clogged.

You might experience acne on the arms as:

  • Blackheads – open pores blocked by dead skin cells that appear dark because they are exposed to oxygen.
  • Whiteheads – clogged pores, white or yellow in appearance, and often firmer than blackheads.
  • Pustules – infected pores filled with pus.
  • Papules – small red bumps that may have a raised white tip in the middle, caused by bacteria under the skin.
  • Nodules and cysts – more severe, built-up acne that can look like boils.

Conditions such as keratosis pilaris, hives, pyrogenic granuloma and a staphylococcus infection may be confused with acne so if you’re at all unsure, see your doctor for a diagnosis first.

What causes acne on arms?

There are many different causes of acne, some of the main ones include:

Hormonal changes or imbalances

Hormonal changes and an increase in the production of natural oils in the skin, often in the teenage years, can cause acne to appear on the arms. Some women find acne flare-ups align with their menstrual cycle. Hormones such as testosterone can also cause acne in both men and women.

Genetics

If one or both of your parents experienced acne, then you’re more likely to as well. Severe acne is a sign that your skin produces too much sebum. It could simply be the way your skin is, but that doesn’t mean the acne is permanent.

Hygiene

Failing to follow a regular hygiene and cleanliness routine can result in a build-up of oil and dead skin cells triggering arm acne but it isn’t a direct cause. Equally, washing too much is not advised – any more than twice a day can irritate the skin, making any acne worse.

Clothing

Acne mechanica is a type of acne caused, and sometimes made worse, by friction and heat. Clothing and bags can be to blame – making it more common on the shoulders and affecting people who carry bags on their arms or wear tight-fitting shirts in non-breathable fabrics.

Body hair and hair removal

Acne-like breakouts on the arms can sometimes be caused by folliculitis – an infection of hair follicles brought on by damage from shaving, plucking, or waxing. Acne can appear almost anywhere on the body, but on the arms, it often appears where hair grows. In this case, running the razor over your arms could do more harm than good.

How can I treat acne on arms?

You can try to manage acne on arms by controlling factors that lead to breakouts. For instance, you might stop wearing tight-fitting clothing and shower immediately after exercise. If you’ve already tried such changes, you might opt for something a little more direct.

Topical treatments

Topical treatments might be suitable if your acne persists after making any lifestyle changes that may contribute to your arm pimple breakouts. These can include:

  • Benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory.
  • Topical retinoids, which remove dead skin cells.
  • Azelaic acid, used for removing dead skin and bacteria (often better suited to sensitive skin).

Medicinal treatments

Sometimes, treating what’s happening inside your body can help control how your arm acne looks on the outside. Hormonal treatments are common, as are antibiotic tablets – and in severe cases, a medicine called co-cyprindiol may be used to reduce sebum production. Medicinal treatments might take several months to start working and can have side-effects.

Blue or red light therapy

Blue light therapy uses light to kill certain bacteria on the skin. Studies show it has the potential to clear acne by nearly 70 per cent within eight to 10 treatments. Red light therapy (also known as LLLT) can help to soothe the skin and fade any acne scarring. It works by using low wavelength red light which deeply penetrates the skin, helping to promote collagen production and rejuvenate the skin.

Chemical peels

Removing dead skin cells can help reduce the risk of pimples appearing – chemical peels do this job without needing much scrubbing. Chemical peels actively remove skin layers, which may encourage new skin growth, and stronger peels can even cut sebum production.

Lasers

Carbon Peel with QS laser treatments help reduce inflammation and skin barrier damage. Like peels, it removes the top layer of skin to encourage new cell growth which can also help to fade scarring.

Find more available acne treatments with our guide to the key types.

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