A Complete Guide To Neck Acne: Causes, Prevention & Treatments
Guess what? You can get a zit anywhere on your body that has a pore. (Fun!) This, unfortunately, may mean a blemish in some unexpected places, like on your nose, scalp, bottom, or neck. And while all blemishes are caused by similar factors—we'll elaborate soon—each area of the body may have individual and unique triggers.
And as for the neck? You may not realize it, but there several factors that may contribute to or worsen acne in the area. So if you consistently find yourself stumbling upon a pimple, here are the reasons why.
Why do you get neck acne?
Well, first let's talk about how pimples form in the first place. Acne is a complex skin condition that has many contributing factors, influences, and triggers. For example, genetics, diet, lifestyle, skin care products, makeup, and stress levels can all play a role in developing or worsening acne. But a basic explanation as to why a zit forms is this: "When cells within the oil glands stick together and block the pores, oil builds up leading to inflammation," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. From there, it may form into the various types of acne, like blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, and cysts.
Neck acne, in particular, may have several contributing factors. First, it's similar to the face in that it does have a higher concentration of pores. "Much like the face, the neck is at risk for developing breakouts because of a high concentration of oil glands," says Zeichner. But the neck is also a sweet spot where many pore-clogging and skin-irritating issues converge.
For example, people who wear makeup may also apply it on their neck but are perhaps not as diligent about removal come evening as they are on their face. Those with long hair may see zits on the nape from hair care products and oil. Sweat may accumulate on the collars of workout gear and clothing, causing irritation in the area. Hair removal, from shaving and so on, may cause breakouts, irritation, and ingrowns. Or hormonal acne, which typically forms around the chin and jawline, may spill over onto the neck.
So rest assured: If you're dealing with acne here, you're definitely not alone, and it's totally normal. It just may take a few tweaks to get it under control.
Remedies for neck acne.
Topical treatments for neck acne are the same as for facial or body acne. However, you'll want to be extra careful with the delicate skin. "The neck is a unique area of the body because the skin is thinner and more sensitive than the face. I typically recommend lower concentrations," says Zeichner.
AHAs and BHAs
These are your classic chemical exfoliators that can help you control oil, slough off excess skin cells, and unclog pores. The two categories work in slightly different ways and may affect your choice of ingredients.
First up, AHAs (like lactic and glycolic acid) are plant-derived compounds that are hydrophilic, meaning they are water-loving. Read: They are also moisturizing as well—which sets them apart from other chemical exfoliants. "They can be simultaneously exfoliating and hydrating, making them very beneficial to many skin types," says board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D. Reach for these if you tend to have dry skin as well as breakouts.
BHAs (salicylic acid) work by breaking apart oil. "It is able to penetrate the skin deeper into pores to help remove dead skin cells, fight bacteria, and control excess sebum," says board-certified dermatologist Zenovia Gabriel, M.D. As she notes, salicylic acid is also found to be antibacterial, making it particularly effective for those with more severe cases, as it not only dissolves excess oil, but it targets the acne-causing bacteria building up in the pores.
A gold standard for skin care, retinol works by increasing cell turnover rate thereby keeping cells younger, as well as keeping pores from getting clogged in the first place. "Topical retinoids have a comedolytic effect, meaning that they help to prevent and treat clogged pores. This is because they increase the turnover of skin cells and reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. "They also decrease the discoloration that can be left after a pimple, and because they increase the turnover of skin cells, this reduces the healing time for acne."
And because the ingredient helps with aging skin as well, this is an ideal choice for those who are concerned about signs of aging while also still experiencing pesky zits. However, retinol—even though modern versions are much more gentle and sophisticated—isn't for everyone. Some people find it to be too potent, cause flaking, and irritation. If your skin is dry and you want to buffer any side effects from your retinol of choice? A classic tip from Zeichner: Layer your retinol over a lotion so the hydrating ingredients can help buffer the stronger active.
Because acne is inflammatory by nature, you can tend to a lot of damage—especially for those who have sensitive skin and acne—by using anti-inflammatory ingredients. There are plenty of options to look for, but consider lotions that contain aloe vera, oat, and other soothing botanicals that support your skin barrier.
For the occasional one-off zit, you may not feel the need to go all-in on a neck care regimen just yet (you shouldn't neglect the area, that's for sure, but you also don't need to overdo it with acne products if your problem is more sporadic in nature). There are several simple spot treatments you can try like apple cider vinegar, honey, and these additional botanicals. You can also use acne patches on the area, as several brands come in larger shapes and sizes to help treat tricky areas like the neck and chest.
"Benzoyl peroxide is an organic acid in the peroxide family that has been used to treat acne for more than 60 years," says King. "It is an effective treatment for acne because of its keratolytic, moderate comedolytic, and antibacterial properties—which include reduction of P. acnes and Staph. aureus on the skin. So that means that benzoyl peroxide is helpful for treating acne because it not only kills bacteria that contribute to acne but also helps to prevent and clear out clogged pores."
If nothing seems to be working, and you've tried our prevention tips below too, it's worth seeing a dermatologist. Because acne can lead to scarring, you'll want to do your best to keep breakouts under control.
So much of dealing with acne is prevention: Keeping skin clear is always so much easier than trying to clear up skin after the fact. And since neck acne has several types of triggers, you may want to look for a few of these prevention tips to see if any of them might be your issue:
Soothe skin after shaving.
For those who shave the area, you may experience breakouts as a result of the irritation. "Hair removal on the neck and along the jawline in some cases may contribute to inflammation, predisposing you to breakouts," says Zeichner. You can help manage this reaction with proper shaving techniques, using hydrating shaving cream or oils, and tending to the skin immediately following shaving with an anti-inflammatory hydrator.
Mind your clothing—especially workout clothing.
When we think of acne triggers, clothing is not the first thing to come to mind. But it certainly may be causing breakouts in the area: "Friction caused by turtlenecks or scarves may lead to breakouts in a phenomenon referred to as acne mechanica. The rubbing of the fabric against the skin leads to inflammation in the follicles," says Zeichner.
You'll want to pay special attention to workout clothing, as that likely accumulates sweat and bacteria, leading to breakouts. Be sure to remove clothing post-workout and always wash your gear so you're not getting two or three days' worth of gunk on your skin.
Look into hair and hair products.
Haircare and styling products are a very common culprit for several areas, from your scalp, hairline, and back. See, while you may be diligent with your skin care—minding that all your face creams and tonics don't clog pores—you may not be paying as close attention to your hair products.
It's not only hair products that may cause breakouts. Oil from your strands may also clog pores—as well as any accumulated dirt and particulate matter on the hair. So while you should not strip your hair of its natural oils (you need them!) do be mindful of how much you wash your hair. If you are breaking out at the nape of your neck, it may be a sign that you're in need of more wash sessions.
Pay attention to makeup and improper makeup removal.
For makeup wearers out there, you know that most experts encourage you to add a little foundation or complexion products to your neck—so as to blend any line that may occur on the jawline. But "like on the face, liquid foundation makeup may block the pores, leading to acne," says Zeichner. "Plus, many people are not as vigilant at washing the neck and removing makeup there as they are at washing the face."
So if you wear makeup on the area—remove the foundation every single night. It's not always easy to wash your neck and chest, however, so you may be better off having natural makeup remover and microfiber towels on hand, or showering at night to get off all the makeup.
Evaluate skin care and body care products.
Because the body has thicker and more durable skin than the neck, body products are also more likely to be thicker. While not always, this often means these products can be comedogenic (or known to clog pores.) "Comedogenic topical products can contribute, like heavy body moisturizers or oil-based hair products," says King. Now, you don't have to switch to a light body lotion if you simply love your butters and dense oils; however, consider using your face products on your neck—rather than your body products.
Tend to your diet and stress.
For those predisposed to acne, diet is a major influence for most people. See, diet can contribute to oil production and inflammation in the body, thereby increasing the chances of breakouts. Here's a list of the top culprits that may be lurking in your pantry.
As for stress, easier said than done—we get that! But stress leads to acne all over—therefore on your neck as well. And when you're dealing with stressed-out skin, it's worth taking it as a sign to re-evaluate what's happening in your day-to-day and see where you can manage your stress.
Can you pop neck pimples?
We've repeated this several times, but it's worth saying once again: "Don't pick! Picking increases the risk for inflammation, infection, discoloration, and scarring, and it increases the time for healing," says King.
Is it acne or something else?
As people grow hair around the nape of their neck, as well as on the chin and neck, it may not be a zit after all—it may be ingrown hairs. "When you shave, the free edge of the hair is cut below the surface of the skin. When the free edge of the hair becomes trapped within the skin, it will grow on itself and curl under the skin rather than growing freely to the surface," says Zeichner.
Luckily, the treatments for ingrown hairs are surprisingly similar to that of acne (read about how to deal with ingrown hairs here). So even if you're not totally sure whether yours is acne or an ingrown, you'll likely be fine tending to it in the same way.
There may be several reasons you are prone to neck acne: Don't worry; all are totally normal and far more common than you think. So just pay closer attention to what you're doing to the area—be it not removing makeup or leaving workout clothes on for too long—and feel free to move some of your go-to skin care products a little south to help treat any pimples.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.