Does Physically Irritating the Skin Cause Body Acne?

Yes, and It Can Occur in Anyone–Even Those with Healthy Skin

Does Physically Irritating the Skin Cause Body Acne?

Article Summary

Physical irritation of the body is unavoidable and in most instances is harmless. However, when this irritation is repetitive, it can make acne worse, especially when the skin is sweaty.

The more the skin is exposed to physical irritation, the more acne tends to develop. Acne mechanica, which is the scientific term for acne caused by physically irritating the skin, may occur anywhere on the skin, depending on what part of the body is exposed to physical irritation. 

To limit acne on the body, try to eliminate obvious sources of repetitive physical irritation, but don't stress about it too much. Proper topical treatment of the body can normally keep acne at bay. 

   

Acne is a disease most known for its appearance on the face, but it can also occur anywhere on the body, except on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It is primarily an inflammatory disease, and anything that increases inflammation, such as irritating the skin, may increase acne symptoms.

Acne that is the result of physical irritation of the skin is called acne mechanica. It is now generally recognized and known that friction, tension, rubbing, and persistent pressure from belts, seats, tight clothing, and other physical irritants can cause and/or worsen acne, even in people who are not acne-prone. In this article, we will focus on acne mechanica on the body.

How Might Mechanical Irritation Affect Pores?
While skin appears smooth to the naked eye, in reality it is comprised of a series of “hills” and “valleys.” Under a microscope, we can see that, inside of the skin's pores, are tiny hairs. These hairs create “peaks” on the skin, with valleys between each peak.1  One hypothesis is that physical irritation may occur due to these microscopic peaks being rubbed or hit, causing mechanical damage to the upper portion of the hair follicles. This mechanical damage may induce an inflammatory response and, subsequently, acne. A second hypothesis contends that rubbing against the skin may affect the entire surface, not just the upper portion of the hair follicles. We are not exactly sure how physical irritation causes more acne, but it is a well accepted medical fact that physical irritation does in fact lead to more acne.

Our bodies come into contact with items all day long, so acne mechanica on the body is a problem for many people. For example, carrying a purse or backpack on the shoulder each day can cause chronic irritation due to the strap’s rubbing against and/or covering the skin.

Sweating can make acne mechanica worse. Further irritation can result when the body’s skin becomes sweaty. The excess moisture softens the skin, making it more prone to damage than non-sweaty skin. So, for example, wearing a purse or backpack on a hot day could cause even more irritation than on a cool day, due to the extra moisture on the skin.

Sweating Can Make Acne Mechanica Worse


Potential Sources of Irritation on the Body

There is no way to avoid things touching the body throughout the day, and there is no reason to stress about it. However, if you are breaking out in one particular area of your body, you may want to consider potential repetitive irritation to that area. Sources of acne mechanica on the body include the following, among many others.

  • Sports – Most kinds of sports require protective equipment, causing constant friction from tight clothing. Even friction against your competitor, such as in wrestling, can cause body acne.
  • Backpacks or purses
  • Massages
  • Clothing – Tight collars, tight bra straps, and tight underwear are examples of clothing that might cause irritation.

Acne Mechanica


Studies Show a Link Between Physical Irritation and Acne

The following studies show that physical irritation can lead to acne, and that sweating can make it worse. 



Body Acne in Football Players

It is no surprise that acne mechanica on the body is associated with playing sports. It arises due to repetitive physical irritation, which is a regular occurrence for those who play sports. This is particularly so for people who play contact sports, such as football. The most common cause is the wearing of protective equipment, which rubs against and irritates the skin, especially on the shoulders, upper back, back of the neck, and chin—all areas where protective equipment is worn.

Irritation from Sports Gear Can Cause Acne Mechanica

The Physician and Sportsmedicine

According to the journal called The Physician and Sportsmedicine, in football players, acne mechanica “is not seen during the first days of practice before protective equipment is worn and starts to improve immediately after the season is over…”This gives further evidence that acne mechanica is specific to the irritated areas of the skin, and that removing the triggering factor can eliminate the issue.


Acne on the Back of the Neck

The back of the neck is a common area where acne mechanica can strike. Stiff collars which rub against the skin all day long produce the irritation necessary to induce acne in some people. However, when it comes to the back of the neck, there is also a unique type of acne that can occur due to physical irritation called acne keloidalis nuchae (AKN).

International Journal of Dermatology

According to one study published in 2007 in the International Journal of Dermatology, 90% of patients with AKN felt that having their hair cut at a barbershop is what triggered this condition. AKN caused by use of razor blades at a barbershop could arise due to one of two occurrences:

  1. Repetitive use of a particular razor. When a razor is used repetitively, the edge of the razor will eventually become dull, and the barber will need to apply more pressure to perform a close shave. This results in damage, or irritation, to the skin, potentially setting the stage for acne.
  2. Use of non-sterilized razors. A razor that has not been sterilized properly can spread infection.4

Acne Keloidalis Nuchae


The Bottom Line

Any kind of repetitive physical irritation can lead to acne on the body, and sweat worsens the problem. However, we can't lead lives without lots of things coming into contact with our bodies all day long. Therefore, don't stress about it too much. Just eliminate obvious sources of irritation when you can, and treat the skin to prevent breakouts. If you have physically irritated the skin on your body and you are concerned that you might break out, pay particular attention to properly treating that area. 

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The Experts at Acne.org

Our team of medical doctors, biology & chemistry PhDs, and acne experts work hand-in-hand with Dan (Acne.org founder) to provide the most complete information on all things acne. If you find any errors in this article, kindly use this Feedback Form and let us know.

References:

  1. Zeichner, J. Acneiform Eruptions in Dermatology. 125–128 (Springer, 2014).
  2. Mills, O. & Kligman, A. Acne mechanica. Arch Dermatol 111, 481–483 (1975).
  3. Tan, S. et al. Acne mechanica. Br Med J 1, 130 (1976).
  4. Salami, T. et al. Prevalence of acne keloidalis nuchae in Nigerians. Int J Dermatol 46, 482–484 (2007).
  5. Basler, R. et al. Athletic skin injuries. Phys Sportsmed 32, 33–40 (2004).
See More References

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