If you’ve ever had a breakout on your body that you couldn’t place, you might be dealing with a skin condition known as folliculitis. It’s a common skin disorder caused by the inflammation of hair follicles—or, you can think of it as “acne that is on a skin site other than the face,” says dermatologist Dr. Alicia Zalka. So while acne presents as a facial breakout of pimples, folliculitis is a breakout that happens elsewhere on your body due to an inflamed hair follicle.
There are a number of factors that can cause folliculitis. While some skin types are more likely to get an outbreak than others, there are also underlying medical conditions and lifestyle choices that can lead to further irritation. Some of the most common causes are bacteria or yeast infections in the pores, sweat left on the skin for long periods of time, hormonal changes, overuse of oily products that block your pores, waxing and shaving, tight clothing, and even hot tub use.
So what exactly can you do about those small red or pus-filled bumps? We spoke with Dr. Zalka and dermatologist Dr. Azadeh Shirazi to find the best at-home and professional treatments for folliculitis.
Use a Decongesting Cleanser
Before heading to a professional, stop by your local pharmacy for some at-home treatments. It turns out there are plenty of cost-efficient ways to tackle folliculitis without digging deep into your wallet. Dr. Zalka recommends using a cleanser that prevents pores from becoming clogged or inflamed. This Neutrogena body wash comes highly recommended by Dr. Zalka, who says it may help prevent oils, dead skin cells, and bacteria from infiltrating your pores. This can help prevent further folliculitis bumps.
Dig Deep With a Chemical Exfoliant
Sometimes it pays off to dig a little deeper. Exfoliating will help get rid of dead skin cells, which can help clear any ongoing outbreaks.
Many dermatologists recommend the Replenix Gly Sal 10/2 Cleanser ($20), which contains two exfoliating ingredients to cleanse the skin and remove buildup. Glycolic acid removes oil and unclogs pores while salicylic acid helps regulate oil production and encourage skin healing. The green tea extract calms and soothes skin to reduce redness and inflammation caused by blemishes.
Try Body Spray Treatments for Convenient Application
If you’re on the go, there are also effective body sprays that allow easy application for difficult areas to reach that may reduce acne breakouts anywhere on the body.
Dr. Shirazi recommends her own GlySal Body Spray, formulated with 10 percent glycolic acid and 2 percent salicylic acid. This is a leave-on treatment that promises not to bleach clothing (as can be the case with benzoyl peroxide treatments) and the formula dries extremely quickly. To use, just spray onto affected areas and let the product dry before you put on your clothes.
Take a Break From Shaving and Waxing
If the problem you’re seeing persists, consider giving that area a break from shaving and/or waxing for a bit. Shaving and waxing can easily "open up" your breakout, exposing the whitehead and causing the spread of bacteria to other areas where you shave with the same razor head—thus leading to more breakouts.
Wear Loose-Fitting Clothing
It’s important to be mindful of your clothing choices when you’re dealing with a folliculitis outbreak. Try to avoid tight clothing for a while, which can cause friction or rubbing that further inflames your breakouts.
In this same vein, be sure to remove clothes ASAP after sweating or working out (and cleanse your skin right away). Sitting in the sweat can lead to further inflammation or clogging of the pores, so your best bet is to hop in the shower (or at least make an outfit change once you’re done working out).
Pro tip: Try using Zeasorb-AF powder before your workouts too to soak up sweat and moisture and prevent yeast overgrowth.
Try a Benzoyl Peroxide Wash
Benzoyl peroxide cleansers daily in the shower are very effective, as they kill pathogenic bacteria and remove dead skin cells.
Consider Laser Hair Removal
If you’ve had some success with any of these treatments, a dermatologist may suggest a hair removal laser course to prevent further folliculitis. The hair follicle is the root of the problem, and the follicles affected can be removed by laser in some circumstances. Laser therapy destroys the hair follicles so they cannot get inflamed or infected again. But in most cases, it takes several treatments to see results.
See a Dermatologist About Professional Treatments
If you’ve tried the at-home solutions and aren’t seeing the progress, it might be time to head to the dermatologist. The biggest warning signs are when pimples become painful, pus-filled, or if the condition spreads to other parts of your body.
When evaluated medically, a dermatologist will likely ask about your medical background and potential causes of the folliculitis. They may prescribe a medicated cleanser and perhaps an oral medication to treat bacteria or yeast if either of these are considered to be the cause. Specific types of folliculitis such as pseudomonas folliculitis may even require oral antibiotics. Prescription sulfacetamide sulfur may also be prescribed by a dermatologist if the over-the-counter topicals are ineffective.
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