Acne Body Washes: What Works & What to Look Out For

Dr. Leah Millheiser, MD Headshot
Medically reviewed by Leah Millheiser, MD Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 6/19/2020

It’s a familiar situation for men — after you finish showering, you notice a serious acne breakout not on your face, but on your back, shoulders, chest, arms and other parts of your body. 

Luckily, just like with facial acne, treatments are available to help you take control of body acne and clear up your skin.

A common treatment for back, chest and other forms of body acne is the use of an acne body wash. Available from most pharmacies and supermarkets, these specially formulated body washes aim to stop acne in various ways, including getting rid of the bacteria that cause it.

Unfortunately, not all acne body washes are equally effective. Below, we’ve explained what you should look for in an acne body wash, as well as what you should look out for. We’ve also listed a variety of other treatment options that can help you to treat and prevent body acne.

How Body Acne Develops

Acne, whether on the face, body or both, is common. Despite its reputation as a condition that primarily affects teenagers and people in their early 20s, acne can occur at any time in life. People experience it in their 30s, 40s and beyond.

Body acne develops through the same basic process as the whiteheads, blackheads and other types of acne that affect your face.

Every day, your sebaceous glands release a substance called sebum onto your skin. A type of natural oil, sebum’s purpose is to keep your skin hydrated and protected. Sebum is a vital part of healthy skin, helping to hold moisture in your skin and repel potentially harmful microbes.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the main culprits behind acne breakouts on both your face and your body. 

When your sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, the excess oil can get trapped inside your hair follicles, creating a seal that clogs the follicle. The clogged follicle then develops into an acne lesion. 

The specific color of the acne lesion that develops varies based on whether the follicle is open to air or not and whether it gets inflamed/infected or not. If the hair follicle is partially open and comes into contact with fresh air, it can turn black due to a reaction involving the pigment in your skin, producing a blackhead.

If the hair follicle is closed and air isn’t able to enter, no reaction occurs and the follicle develops into a whitehead. 

When bacteria becomes trapped inside the hair follicle, it can develop into an infection, leading to inflamed, painful acne that’s often difficult to get rid of.  

Sebum isn’t the only component that causes  body acne, although it’s usually the biggest one. Other particles, such as dead skin cells, can also become trapped inside your hair follicles, contributing to the blockages that cause whiteheads, blackheads and other types of acne lesions to show up.

How Body Acne Treatments Work

Most body acne treatments work by targeting one or more of the factors that contribute to body acne breakouts — sebum, dead skin cells, bacteria and/or hormones (androgens, specifically).

The mechanism behind sebum production is complicated. However, one of the main factors in sebum production are certain hormones, potentially including androgenic hormones such as testosterone.

As a man, testosterone is essential for many aspects of your health and wellbeing. It’s also not something that you can change or controlby using a body wash. 

However, while body washes may not  control your sebum production, some can help reduce excess sebum that’s already on your skin. 

We’ve listed these ingredients a little further down the page and explained how they often work to clear away sebum. 

The second factor in body acne, as we mentioned above, is dead skin. Your body is constantly producing new skin cells through a process called cellular turnover. Over time, dead skin cells can collect on the surface of your skin, contributing to blocked follicles and acne breakouts.

This is something that over-the-counter body washes can control, at least to an extent. Many of the acne body washes on sale today contain exfoliating ingredients that are designed to get rid of old, dead skin cells, reducing your risk of developing acne.

The third factor in body acne, and one that some body washes are quite effective at controlling, is bacteria. 

Although you can’t see it with the naked eye, your skin is crawling with microorganisms. Experts believe that there are between 500 to 1,000 different species of bacteria, fungi and other organisms living in your skin.

While this can sound slightly disgusting, the reality is that these bacteria generally aren’t harmful to your health. In fact, experts believe that — just like elsewhere in your body — some skin-based bacterial species are actually beneficial for your health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, certain types of skin bacteria can become a serious annoyance if you’re prone to acne. One of these is a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes, which often becomes trapped inside hair follicles and pores and can contribute to inflamed, painful acne.

If you often get red, irritated pimples on your back, chest, arms and other parts of your body, P. acnes is one of the most likely culprits.

What to Look For in an Acne Body Wash

Walk into your local drug store or supermarket and you’ll see a huge variety of body washes for treating acne, ranging from luxurious, expensive-looking products to basic, affordable ones. 

When it comes to actually removing and preventing body acne, not all body washes are equally effective. While some contain useful, science-backed ingredients, others are heavy on promises and often much lighter on real results. 

Just like with other skincare products, the price of an acne body wash also isn’t always the most reliable indicator of whether or not it’s any good. 

Luckily, there are several key ingredients that you should look for in an acne body wash. We’ve listed these below, along with more information on how each ingredient works to get rid of body acne and prevent it from coming back. 

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter acne body washes. It’s a type of exfoliant that removes old, dead skin cells from the surface layer of your skin. 

By stripping away dead skin cells, salicylic acid may prevent blockages from forming inside your hair follicles and reduce the severity and frequency of body acne breakouts. 

Although there isn’t much research on salicylic acid and body acne specifically, several studies have found that salicylic acid is effective as a treatment for acne.

A scientific review of four studies published in 1992 also found that topical solutions containing 0.5 percent to two percent salicylic acid were safe and effective as treatments for acne vulgaris. 

Another study from 2008 looked at the efficacy of glycolic acid (another popular OTC acne treatment) and salicylic acid. Twenty patients applied a solution of 30 percent glycolic acid to one half of their faces and a solution of 30 percent salicylic acid to the other half of their faces for 12 weeks.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that the two treatments “significantly effective” in treating facial acne, and that two months posttreatment, the salicylic acid had remained effective and participants experienced less adverse events with salicylic acid than glycolic acid. 

If you have acne that isn’t inflamed or painful, but seem to develop whiteheads and blackheads easily on your body, it’s worth trying a body wash containing salicylic acid before considering other options. 

You can find salicylic acid in a wide range of over-the-counter acne body washes. To check if a body wash contains salicylic acid, take a look at the ingredients list or ask the staff at your local drug store for help.

Most body washes contain anywhere from 0.05 percent to five percent salicylic acid. If you have sensitive skin, try starting with a body wash that has a relatively low salicylic acid content to avoid irritation or excessive dryness.

If you notice your skin getting too dry after using a salicylic acid body wash, you may want to try  using your body wash every other day instead of daily. 

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is another common ingredient in over-the-counter acne body washes. Similar to salicylic acid, it’s a proven ingredient for treating and preventing body acne that’s backed up by plenty of scientific research. 

For example, a 2010 scientific review noted that benzoyl peroxide is “very effective” at reducing acne-causing bacteria on the back. 

Benzoyl peroxide works by reducing the bacteria that contribute to the development of  acne. Studies show that it can target and reduce P. acnes, one of the main bacteria that contributes to painful, inflamed acne .

If you have severe body acne, benzoyl peroxide might not be the best choice. However, it’s an option worth considering if you get mild to moderate acne breakouts on your back, arms, chest, shoulders or other parts of your body. In the case of severe body acne, your healthcare provider may recommend a benzoyl peroxide wash in addition to oral therapy (e.g., an antibiotic like doxycycline). 

A range of acne treatment and prevention products contain benzoyl peroxide. Check that you buy a wash designed for your body. If you only get acne in small areas, a gel or topical cream containing benzoyl peroxide might also be suitable.

As with other topical acne treatments, benzoyl peroxide can potentially cause skin irritation and dryness. If you have sensitive skin, consider buying a low-strength benzoyl peroxide body wash or only using a body wash containing benzoyl peroxide every other day. 

Benzoyl peroxide has mild bleaching properties. As such, you should be careful when applying it near your hairline. Over the years, there have been some reports of benzoyl peroxide lightening the hair and eyebrows when applied directly to hair. 

It’s also important to check that you’ve thoroughly washed off any benzoyl peroxide products before coming into contact with a towel, sheets or other fabrics. 

What to Watch Out For

  • Being impatient. All acne treatments, whether over-the-counter or prescription, need time to work. Before you jump to any conclusions, try using a body wash that contains the ingredients above for at two months.

  • Overusing your body wash. Be careful not to overdo it on the body wash. Using too much of it too often may result in your body being stripped of its crucial oils. While that sounds great if you're fighting acne, it can also make for dry, irritated skin that may actually leave you more susceptible to an acne break out. 

  • Choosing the wrong product for your skin. Skincare products aren’t one-size-fits-all. Make sure you pick the right treatment for the type of acne you tend to get.

Not sure what type of acne you have? Consider talking to a healthcare professional about the best way to get rid of your body acne

If You Have Moderate to Severe Body Acne

Body washes containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or both ingredients are often more than enough to treat mild body acne. However, if you have moderate to severe acne, or you don’t get any results from an acne body wash, it’s worth talking to a doctor about other treatments.

Depending on the type and severity of your acne, you may get better results from a prescription treatment such as tretinoin or an antibiotic like doxycycline. If you have very severe body acne, your doctor may recommend an oral medication such as isotretinoin (Accutane®)

Learn More About Treating Acne

Dealing with body acne can be a serious annoyance, especially when it develops into inflamed, painful acne that refuses to go away on its own. 

Acne can vary in severity, meaning there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment that works best for everyone. However, options are available, and it’s almost always possible to treat your acne and prevent it from coming back with the right treatment.

Interested in learning more about getting rid of acne? Our guide to prescription acne treatments lists the most effective products for ending acne breakouts, from retinoids to antibiotics, creams, over-the-counter options and more. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.