What Causes Acne On Shoulders: Best Treatments


  •  Acne on the shoulders can be caused by a variety of factors, including bacteria, inflammation, and clogged pores.
  • The best way to treat acne on the shoulders is to identify the underlying cause and address it specifically.
  • Treatment options include over-the-counter and prescription medications, as well as laser therapy and other treatments.

Anyone who's ever had a pimple pop up in an inconvenient place knows the frustration of dealing with acne. But while we tend to think of acne as a teenage problem, the truth is that adult acne is a very real issue.

One of the most frustrating places to deal with breakouts is on the shoulders. Whether it's from sweating in a workout class or simply from your everyday wardrobe, shoulder acne is certainly a pain. But what causes it, and how can you get rid of it?

Let's dive in and take a closer look at what causes this type of acne, as well as the best treatments to clear it up.

Why Do You Have Shoulder Acne?

Shoulder acne is often more difficult to manage than other types of blemishes because it's located in such a visible area. It can be exacerbated by tight clothing, heavy bags, and even your own straps from a backpack or purse!

Shoulder acne is also largely genetic, with genes playing a role in determining how P. acnes bacteria affects the body.

Keratosis pilaris

Keratosis pilaris is also known as "chicken skin." Dead skin cells clogging the hair follicle cause harmless little red bumps to appear on the back of the arms or upper thighs.

Although this condition isn't technically acne, using topical retinoids may help improve the appearance of both keratosis pilaris and acne.

Acne mechanica

Acne mechanica is a form of acne caused by external factors such as friction, pressure, and heat.

If you find yourself developing acne on your back or shoulders after an intense workout session in tight clothing or even from simply wearing a backpack during humid weather, then it's likely due to what we call "acne mechanica."

Acne mechanica should not be confused with the much more common condition of acne vulgaris. Acne vulgaris is thought to develop as an internal response to things like hormonal changes and overactive sebaceous glands.

Excess sebaceous secretions

The common misconception is that acne is caused by dirt and sweat. However, sweat itself is actually sterile and does not cause acne.

Acne is thought to develop when there is an overproduction of sebum, which can lead to clogged pores. This overproduction may be due to hormonal changes, certain medications, or even just genetics.

Puberty, menopause and even pregnancy can all cause an increase in sebum production, which can then lead to shoulder acne.

What Are The Types Of Shoulder Acne?

There are several types of shoulder acne, each with its own causes and treatments. Let's take a closer look at some of the most common types of shoulder acne:

1. Cysts and nodules

Often characterized as painful, red, and large acne lesions, cysts and nodules usually appear in severe shoulder acne. It's also referred to as nodulocystic acne. When the pores become clogged with sebum, bacteria, and dead skin cells, they can form into larger pimples.

Cysts are filled with pus and are considered the most serious type of shoulder acne. They can often lead to permanent scarring if not treated properly.

2. Pustules

Appears as red bumps filled with fluids such as pus, pustules are a type of acne that usually affects the shoulders, face, chest, and back. Pustules are different from other acne types in that they contain bacteria. 

They can range in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters. Pustules are usually white or yellow in color. If they are popped, they can leave behind scars. 

3. Papules

Papules are small, inflamed bumps that can appear on the face, neck, chest, back, or shoulders. Papules are slightly different from pustules because they do not contain pus. Instead, they are filled with sebum, a type of oil produced by the sebaceous glands.

Papules can range in size from a few millimeters to a few centimeters. They are usually red or pink in color and can be painful to the touch. While papules are not as serious as some other types of acne, they can still be uncomfortable and unsightly. 

4. Blackheads

Also called closed comedones, blackheads grow deep within the pores when clogged. It's frequently thought that their dark color is due to dirt or debris trapped in the follicle, but it's actually due to the oxidation of melanin and keratin. 

Blackheads are commonly found on the face but can also occur on other body parts, such as the shoulders. Although they're not as noticeable as other types of acne, blackheads can be just as difficult to eliminate.

5. Whiteheads

Also called open comedones, whiteheads are tiny, white bumps with a skin-colored appearance. They're made up of keratin (which the body creates naturally) and oil. 

Whiteheads can be found on the face, neck, chest, back, or shoulders. They are often mistaken for pimples but are actually a different type of acne. Whiteheads are not as inflamed as pimples and do not contain pus.

While whiteheads can be tempting to pop, resist the urge! This can actually make them worse and cause scarring. 

How To Treat Shoulder Acne?

There are many different ways to treat shoulder acne. The best way to treat shoulder acne will depend on the type of acne and its severity. 

Oral Medications

The following medications, which come in pill form, can help effectively treat shoulder acne by targeting its underlying causes.

Hormone Therapy 

This type of therapy helps to regulate the hormones that can trigger excess oil production, one of the main causes of acne. In addition, hormone therapy can help to reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Examples include:

  • flutamide (Eulexin)
  • cyproterone (not available in the U.S.)
  • spironolactone (CaroSpire, Aldactone)

For best results, hormone therapy should be combined with a good skincare routine that includes cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing. With proper treatment, shoulder acne can be controlled and even prevented.


Contraceptives are not just for preventing pregnancy; they can also be used to treat shoulder acne. Androgen, a hormone in both men and women, can cause the sebaceous glands to produce excess oil, leading to breakouts.

By suppressing androgen levels, contraceptives can help control oil production and reduce the incidence of shoulder acne. Various contraceptives are available, so it is important to speak with a doctor or dermatologist to determine which is right for you.


The most common antibiotics prescribed for shoulder acne are tetracyclines, which include doxycycline and minocycline. These antibiotics work by killing the bacteria that cause acne, as well as reducing inflammation. 

Antibiotics are common acne treatments, but they come with a risk of side effects. Some people are more prone to these side effects than others, so it's important to weigh the pros and cons before starting an antibiotic regimen. 

Topical Treatments

Over-the-counter (OTC) topical medications can be used to help treat acne. The following ingredients are commonly found in topical treatments.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring substance found in wheat, rye, and barley. It's also produced by the yeast that lives on healthy skin. The acid kills the bacteria that cause acne and reduces the inflammation associated with the condition.

Azelaic acid is available in cream and gel form and can be applied to the affected area up to two times per day. Some people may experience temporary skin irritation when using azelaic acid, but this side effect typically goes away after a few days of treatment. 


Retinoids are a group of compounds that are derived from vitamin A. They are FDA-approved for treating acne and available in over-the-counter and prescription forms.

Retinoids promote skin cell turnover and prevent the buildup of dead skin cells, which can clog pores and lead to acne breakouts.

Additionally, retinoids have anti-inflammatory properties that can help to reduce the redness and swelling associated with acne lesions. When used as directed, retinoids are an effective treatment for shoulder acne.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a type of beta hydroxy acid commonly used to treat acne. When applied to the skin, salicylic acid works by dissolving the bonds that hold dead skin cells together.

This action helps to open up clogged pores and clear out the buildup of oil and bacteria that can contribute to breakouts. In addition, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties that can help to soothe redness and swelling.

One of the most effective ways to treat shoulder acne is to use a salicylic acid-based cleanser or exfoliating pads. These products can help slough away dead skin cells and reduce the buildup of oil and bacteria on the skin.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most popular treatments for shoulder acne. And for a good reason - studies have shown that it can be up to twice as effective as other treatments, such as topical antibiotics.

Benzoyl peroxide works by killing the bacteria that cause acne. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help to reduce the redness and swelling associated with shoulder acne.

Benzoyl peroxide is available in various formulations, including gels, creams, and lotions. It is important to choose a formulation that is suited to your skin type, as benzoyl peroxide can be drying and irritating.

Home Remedies

In addition to OTC and prescription treatments, there are a number of home remedies that can be used to treat shoulder acne.

Oatmeal bath

Have you ever tried an oatmeal bath for your shoulder acne? It may sound too simple to be effective, but this natural remedy has shown to be helpful for many people.

Oatmeal contains Avena sativa, which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This makes it effective in treating various skin conditions, such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis.

When used in a bath, oatmeal can help to soothe the skin and reduce redness and irritation. It can also help to absorb excess oil and dirt, leaving the skin feeling clean and refreshed.

To prepare an oatmeal bath, add 1 cup of uncooked oatmeal to a tub of warm water. Soak in the tub for 15-20 minutes, then pat the skin dry.

Warm compress

While there are many acne treatments available, one of the most effective is a warm compress. Applying heat to the affected area helps to open up the pores and loosen the sebum that clogs them.

This allows the skin to breathe and begin the healing process. In addition, the warmth of the compress can help to soothe inflammation and reduce redness.

For best results, apply a warm compress to the shoulder for 10-15 minutes several times a day. Within a few days, you should see a noticeable improvement in your shoulder acne.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is a natural antiseptic that can be used to treat shoulder acne. The oil helps to kill the bacteria that cause acne and can also help to reduce inflammation.

To use tea tree oil, mix a few drops with water and apply it to the affected area with a cotton ball. Let it dry, then rinse it off with warm water.

Do this once or twice a day until the shoulder acne clears up. You can also add a few drops of tea tree oil to your regular shampoo or body wash to help prevent breakouts.

The Bottom Line

You may not think of your shoulders as a place where you can get acne, but it is actually a very common problem. Shoulder acne is caused by a combination of factors, including dead skin cells, bacteria, and excess oil.

The good news is that there are a number of effective treatments available. Depending on the severity of your shoulder acne, you may need to try a few different treatments before you find one that works for you.

If home remedies and over-the-counter treatments don't work, talk to your doctor about prescription options. With the right treatment, you can get rid of shoulder acne and enjoy clear, healthy skin.

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