Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/27/2020
Dealing with acne can be a stressful and irritating experience, especially when it develops in an obvious, highly visible location such as your forehead.
Your forehead is a common location for acne. If you’re prone to acne, you may notice everything from small whiteheads and blackheads to large, red and inflamed pimples developing on or near your forehead.
Like acne that affects other parts of your body, forehead acne is almost always treatable, with a wide range of over-the-counter products and prescription medications available to prevent acne breakouts and help you keep your skin clear.
Below, we’ve explained why forehead acne develops, as well as the different types of acne you may notice on your forehead. We’ve also covered the science-based treatment and prevention options that are available for acne that affects your forehead and other parts of your face.
The acne that affects your forehead is caused by the same factors as the acne that develops in other parts of your body.
All acne, whether it’s one or two small blackheads or a severe breakout of cystic acne, develops due to the same root causes -- excessive secretion of sebum and the accumulation of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin.
Sebum is an oil-like substance that’s produced and secreted by your sebaceous glands -- small, oil-secreting glands that are connected to the hair follicles in your skin.
Your skin needs sebum in order to remain healthy. Sebum helps to seal moisture into your skin and prevent water loss. It’s also a key component of your skin’s protective barrier, keeping your skin protected from damage and infection.
Your sebaceous glands release sebum into the hair canal, where it travels to the surface of your skin along the hair shaft.
When your sebaceous glands secrete the right amount of sebum, this process works smoothly to keep your skin smooth and healthy. However, when the sebaceous glands secrete too much sebum, the excess can become stuck inside the hair follicle, causing it to become clogged.
Hair follicles that are clogged with sebum may turn into acne lesions, with the specific type of acne varying based on the severity of the blockage and the presence of bacteria.
Although sebaceous glands can be found all around your body, they’re most numerous on your face -- a key reason why acne breakouts usually affect areas such as your forehead more than other parts of your body.
While sebum is a major factor in acne, whether on your forehead or elsewhere on your body, it isn’t the only substance responsible for clogging your hair follicles.
In order to repair damage, your body is constantly producing new skin cells through a process that’s referred to as epidermal turnover. As old skin cells deteriorate, they’re replaced by new, undamaged ones. For most people, this process takes between 40 and 56 days.
As your body replaces its old skin cells with new ones, the old, dead skin cells build up on the surface of your skin. Over time, these cells can mix with the excess sebum produced by your sebaceous glands and contribute to clogged hair follicles and acne breakouts.
Several biological and environmental factors all play a role in your body’s production of sebum and the epidermal turnover process. These include:
Your genetics. Research suggests that the tendency to develop acne is partly genetic, meaning you can inherit it from your parents.
Your production of androgen hormones. Male sex hormones, or androgens, plays a major role in the secretion of sebum. Specifically, the male hormones testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT) are known to increase sebum production.
The link between androgen hormones and sebum production is one reason why acne is so common during adolescence.
Your use of certain medications. Some medications, such as steroids, anticonvulsants and lithium, are associated with sebum production and may contribute to a higher risk of developing acne.
Your use of skincare and hair care products. Although these products generally don’t affect your skin’s sebum production, some skin and hair care products contain natural or artificial oils that can clog hair follicles and trigger acne breakouts.
Certain habits may also increase your risk of developing acne on your forehead and other parts of your body. For example, research shows that cigarette smoking and activities that trigger an increase in stress are both associated with more severe acne breakouts.
Contrary to popular belief, not all acne is the same. From comedones to nodular acne, several different types of acne can develop on your forehead:
Comedonal acne. This is a mild, non-inflammatory form of acne. Comedonal acne can be either open or closed. When a comedone is closed, it has a white color and is known as a whitehead.
When a comedone is open, the oxygen in the air can react with the debris that clogs the follicle, causing it to take on a dark color. These comedones are known as blackheads.
Inflammatory acne. When bacteria grows inside a comedone, it can become inflamed and irritated. Inflamed acne is red in color, raised from the skin and can be painful to the touch. Common types of inflammatory acne include papules and pustules.
Nodular and cystic acne. When inflamed acne becomes very severe, it’s often referred to as nodular or cystic acne. This type of acne can penetrate deep into the skin and may leave behind permanent scarring.
If you’re prone to acne, you may notice several different types of acne lesions on your forehead and elsewhere on your face. It’s important to identify the type of acne you have in order to treat it effectively and prevent it from coming back.
Although forehead acne can be annoying, even the most severe breakouts are usually treatable using a combination of good skincare habits, over-the-counter products and medication.
If your forehead acne is mild -- for example, you only develop whiteheads, blackheads or small breakouts of inflammatory acne -- you may be able to treat it effectively using over-the-counter treatments alone.
A variety of different over-the-counter products are available to treat acne, ranging from gentle cleansers to mild retinoids. Common over-the-counter acne treatments include:
Facial cleansers. Over-the-counter facial cleansers, which help to clean your skin and wash away excess sebum, can often help to control mild acne that can develop on your forehead and elsewhere on your face.
If you’re prone to acne, try washing your forehead and other affected parts of your face with a gentle cleanser one or two times per day. For best results, opt for a cleanser with a formula that’s free of harsh, potentially irritating chemicals.
Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is an over-the-counter topical medication that can get rid of acne-causing bacteria and reduce sebum levels. It’s available on its own as a cream or lotion, or as an ingredient in countless over-the-counter acne products.
Like a facial cleanser, benzoyl peroxide is easy to use. Most products are designed for topical use on affected skin one to three times per day. Side effects are usually mild, with skin dryness and scaling the most common in higher-concentration products.
Salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid. It works by unblocking hair follicles that have become clogged with sebum and dead skin cells. It can also reduce redness and inflammation that often affect acne-prone skin.
You can purchase salicylic acid as a topical cream. It’s also used as an active ingredient in many over-the-counter acne products, such as facial washes, cleansers, body scrubs and other products.
Azelaic acid. Azelaic acid is a topical medication that gets rid of acne-causing bacteria and clears away acne breakouts. It’s available in numerous over-the-counter products for treating acne and as a topical gel in several different strengths.
Several prescription medications are used to treat forehead acne. Depending on the type and severity of your acne, your healthcare provider may prescribe one or more of the medications listed below:
Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a topical retinoid. It works by speeding up your epidermal turnover process, reducing the number of dead skin cells that can build up on the surface of your skin and contribute to acne breakouts.
Tretinoin is one of several active ingredients in our customized acne cream, which works to prevent whiteheads, blackheads and other types of acne.
Although tretinoin can take a few months to start working, research shows that it’s highly effective at treating acne over the long term. You can find more information on tretinoin’s effectiveness, results and side effects in our Tretinoin 101 guide.
Clindamycin. Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic. It works by slowing down or completely stopping the growth of certain types of bacteria that can grow inside clogged hair follicles and cause inflamed acne.
Antibiotics like clindamycin are especially effective against inflamed, infected acne. Like tretinoin, clindamycin is one of several active ingredients in our customized acne cream.
Isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid. It works by reducing sebum production and controlling the growth of certain types of bacteria that can contribute to inflamed, painful types of acne.
Isotretinoin is generally used for severe cases of acne. While it’s effective, it can cause numerous side effects, some of which can be severe. Because of this, it’s important to keep in regular contact with your dermatologist if you’re prescribed this medication.
If you have severe forehead acne, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider or schedule an appointment with a dermatologist. Used as prescribed, medication can generally treat even the most severe, stubborn acne on your forehead and other parts of your face.
While it usually isn’t possible to completely prevent acne, making certain changes to your habits can help to make acne breakouts on your forehead and other parts of your face a less frequent annoyance.
Try the following tips and techniques to reduce your risk of developing acne breakouts on your forehead:
Try not to overuse hair styling products. Many hair gels, waxes, pomades and other styling products contain lots of oil. While this makes them great for styling your hair, the oil used in these products can cause acne near your hairline and forehead. We have a dedicated blog on pomade acne if you'd like to take a look.
If you style your hair, try to avoid overusing your products. To reduce your risk of getting forehead acne, consider switching to a non-comedogenic styling product. These contain less oil and have a lower risk of clogging the hair follicles in your forehead.
Wash your hair frequently, especially if it’s naturally oily. If you have oily hair, make sure to wash it often to avoid letting the oil accumulate. Try to wear your hair away from your forehead to prevent oil from transferring from your hair onto your skin.
Be careful with clothing that covers your forehead. Clothing and sporting equipment that covers your forehead, such as cycling, football or hockey helmets, sweatbands and other items, can all cause a type of acne called acne mechanica.
If you regularly wear clothing or sports equipment that covers your forehead, make sure to wash your skin as soon as you take it off. You can also try placing a soft pad between your skin and the helmet to reduce rubbing, irritation and direct sweat contact.
Wipe away sweat and shower immediately after working out. Sweating excessively, such as during a hard workout, can contribute to acne. While you’re working out, make sure to gently wipe or pat off sweat from your forehead using a clean towel.
After you finish working out, it’s best to shower as soon as possible. This helps to wash away acne-causing bacteria and prevent sweat from building up on your face.
Make sure not to squeeze or pop forehead pimples. While it can be tempting to pop pimples on your own, doing so isn’t a good idea. When you pop a pimple, you increase your risk of introducing bacteria into your skin, which may cause an infection.
Popping pimples can also increase your risk of acne scars, some of which can require costly treatments to remove.
Although forehead acne can be an annoyance, it’s typically easy to treat using over-the-counter products, prescription medications or both. Once you’ve treated your acne, keeping it away can often be as simple as making a few small changes to your habits.
If you have mild or occasional forehead acne, consider one of the over-the-counter treatments listed above. For more severe acne, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about using an FDA-approved prescription medication.