We can get pimples almost anywhere on our bodies, seeing as our bodies are covered in hair follicles, and when hair follicles become clogged, that’s when we break out. And so, annoyingly, we can break out on our arms too.
That said, when our arms appear to be broken out, it’s more likely something else, such as keratosis pilaris (aka KP) or folliculitis. The first step to getting rid of a breakout (or other skin condition) on the arms is correctly identifying what you’re dealing with.
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- Keratosis Pilaris: Keratosis pilaris is a condition in which “the skin cells lining our hair follicles fail to shed properly, and form plugs instead,” explains New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist Ken Howe, MD. These bumps are typically “smaller and shallower” than acne—they don’t form red cysts like acne does, and nothing will come out if you squeeze them, “except a hard, dry plug that is hard to get out without proper instruments,” Howe says (which, of course, you shouldn’t do). KP bumps most often show up on the upper arms.
- Folliculitis: Folliculitis (aka, an infection of the hair follicles) can also result in red bumps on the arms, and this can also look a lot like acne. “This can also look a lot like acne, and it’s easy to understand why. The structure involved is the hair follicle, the same structure that’s affected by acne,” Howe explains. “This time it’s the deeper aspect of acne that’s imitated: the swelling of the follicle, the infiltration by white blood cells to fight the infection, and forming a whitehead in the process.” Being an infection, this is more likely to come about suddenly and more likely to hurt.
- Hives: Finally, what appears to be acne on the arms could also be hives, especially if they feel itchy. “Hives are mainly caused by stress or an allergic reaction,” says Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Annie Gonzalez, MD, FAAD.
When breakouts on the arms are in fact breakouts, they often trace to lifestyle habits. “The most common reasons why someone would have breakouts on their arm are hygiene, hormonal changes, skincare regime, or wearing tight clothing,” notes Gonzalez. The skin on our bodies is not so different from the skin on our faces, after all. “When you're not washing your face correctly, you might find more pimples making an appearance. Well, the same goes for your body. Washing your body removes dead skin cells and oil. If you're not washing your body frequently, dead skin cells, sweat, and dirt can build up and cause pimples,” Gonzalez adds.
Another possible trigger? Trapped sweat. For example, when our clothes are tight, sweat has nowhere to go, which, Gonzalez notes, “can clog your pores and cause breakouts.”
If you have a breakout you can’t identify on your arms, it’s best to figure out what it is with the help of a board-certified dermatologist. But generally speaking, you can also make a few changes at home to help prevent it from recurring.
- Avoid super tight clothing as much as possible. If tight clothing is a must, especially when sweating (working out), be sure to shower and change as soon as you’re done working out.
- Cleanse the body thoroughly.
- Exfoliate two-three times a week using a scrub or an exfoliating mitt.
- Moisturize the body: “This is a key step to preventing acne,” Gonzalez says. “When the skin is dry, it tries to compensate by producing a lot of oil.”
The most important thing is to know what you’re treating—so if you need professional help identifying what’s going on because different skin conditions require very different treatments.
- Folliculitis: When mild, Gonzalez explains, antibiotic creams or gels usually help. In some cases, dermatologists may also prescribe an anti-fungal cleanser, when an antibiotic ointment alone does not help.
- Keratosis Pilaris: Keratosis pilaris can be managed, but not ‘cured,’ per se. Body lotions, and even scrubs that incorporate chemically exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid, which helps loosen the plugs, can help, but they have to be done continually. We like First Aid Beauty’s KP Bump Eraser Body Scrub with 10% AHA and Amlactin’s Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion, which contains 12% lactic acid.
- Acne: If your arms have an acne breakout, there are a few steps you can take in your daily routine that can help clear it up. Gonzalez recommends upping your body care routine with regular exfoliation, and including a moisturizing body scrub or a medicated body wash. "Like with KP, acne breakouts can benefit from body washes that contain AHAs to promote cell turnover without irritation,” she says. Try Megababe’s Power Wash Beachy Body Scrub, which exfoliates with glycolic acid and walnut shell, or Mario Badescu’s AHA Botanical Body Soap. Body washes with acne fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, such as Dr. Song Benzoyl Peroxide 10% Acne Treatment, and salicylic acid (like Murad's Acne Fighting Body Wash) can also help. Gonzalez recommends immediately following with a soothing, fragrance-free lotion, like Aveeno’s Daily Moisturizing Lotion.