Wellness

Here's How To Tell If Your Acne Is A Sign Of A Bigger Health Issue

Read your breakouts.

Here's how to tell if your acne is a sign of a bigger health issue.
Ashley Batz/Bustle
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Since your skin can tell you so much about your health, it's always a good idea to pay attention to what the location of your acne means, as well as what type of acne it is, in order to get a better idea of what's going on inside your body. If it seems like new or worsening acne is cropping up — despite taking care of your health and your hygiene — it may be a signal that something greater is going on with your body.

While most breakouts are simply due to clogged pores, it's possible that they could be a sign of something else — and possibly not even acne at all. "It is important to consider your skin's natural tendencies as new acne develops," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Hicks-Graham tells Bustle. "If acne is common for you, that's one thing, but if your acne suddenly becomes worse, consider any other changes in your health or medications and get help from your medical professional or see a dermatologist." Pay special attention to whether you've got acne on the neck, around the mouth, or in other unusual spots you don't typically experience breakouts.

Essentially, depending on where your pimple is, acne could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, a side effect of medications you're taking, or even a symptom of a yeast infection, among other systemic issues. Here are nine places acne can crop up and what it may mean, according to experts.

1

Lower Face/Chin/Neck

If you notice lower face, chin, and neck acne around your period or after a bout of intense emotional stress, experts say there's a good chance your hormones are imbalanced. This type of acne "may be more cystic in nature with deep, painful, red nodules that don't develop a surface whitehead," Hicks-Graham tells Bustle.

Cystic acne can be tricky: Hicks-Graham says it can take a long time to heal since it's so deep in your skin, and often leaves behind red or brown scars. And by the time scarring starts to fade, you may already have another cycle of hormonal acne on your hands, she adds.

It's important to keep your hands off these breakouts: Hicks-Graham warns against picking or squeezing cystic acne to reduce the odds of scarring (even though it's so tempting). Research shows that oral contraceptives can also help moderate your hormones and prevent this type of acne.

You may also notice more acne around your mouth lately because of all the mask wearing. While you definitely shouldn't stop donning your protective gear, make sure you regularly clean it (and your face, for that matter) to get rid of gunky buildup.

2

Forehead

If you're no stranger to forehead breakouts, stress may be to blame, according to Dr. Craig Austin, a New York City-based dermatologist and creator of the skin care brand Cane + Austin. The body can react to unhealthy levels of stress by breaking out in blemishes anywhere on the body, but most commonly on the forehead, he says.

The culprit? Fluctuating hormones and resulting oily skin. "The connection between stress and acne is the rise in cortisol levels which leads to overactive sebum," he tells Bustle. Austin says that extra oil on your skin can mix with bacteria and dead skin cells to clog up your pores and allow acne to flourish.

But don't let your breakouts cause you more stress — speaking with your dermatologist can help you find solutions on how to manage it.

3

Around The Mouth

If you specifically notice acne around your mouth and lips, that could be a sign of other hormonal issues, says Dr. Michele J. Farber of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. While acne around your mouth alone isn't a telltale sign of an underlying medical problem, it could be a sign of hormonal disorders like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) if you're also having other symptoms, she tells Bustle.

Other symptoms of PCOS include thinning hair on your scalp, irregular periods, depression, and fertility issues. If you notice any of these signs in addition to breakouts around your mouth, it may be worth checking in with your doctor to see if something more serious is contributing to your blemishes.

But if you're otherwise symptom-free, acne around your mouth could be due to bacteria buildup from oily skin or touching your face too much.

4

Face/Back/Buttocks

If you notice new acne popping up on your face, chest, back, or buttocks, it could be a side effect of your prescription medication, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Yoram Harth, chief medical officer at MDacne. Medication for bipolar disorder, colds and coughs, rashes, and hormone imbalances can all be potential culprits, he says.

You can manage most breakouts that are caused by your medication with standard acne therapy, he tells Bustle. But in more extreme cases, you may consider discontinuing or changing the offending medication.

5

Chest

You may remember irritating chest pimples from when you were a teenager. But if you're past those hormonal years and still have chest breakouts, a different skin condition may be to blame, according to Dr. Sejal Shah, a dermatologic surgeon based in New York City.

"Acne most commonly affects the face, back, and chest, so chest acne is not necessarily different than face acne," she tells Bustle. "However, there is another condition called folliculitis, which is basically inflammation of the hair follicles that can occur on the chest and looks very similar to acne."

Irritation from shaving or keeping your skin in unbreathable clothing for too long (hello, sweaty gym clothes) are often to blame for folliculitis. The same condition can also make it look like you have acne on your neck or armpits. Whatever the cause, your dermatologist can help determine what it is and offer the proper treatment based on your symptoms.

6

Bikini Line

Folliculitis doesn't just impact your upper body — it can cause irritation and pimple-like bumps around your vaginal area too, according to Shah. "Folliculitis ... can be caused by a variety of factors such as tight clothing, friction, sweat, hair removal, excess oil, harsh or irritating skin care products, and infectious organisms," she tells Bustle.

Ingrown hairs are another common culprit of bikini-line bumps, Shah adds. If it is indeed an ingrown, she says you'll notice a hair in the bump. You can treat it by gently exfoliating the area and reducing inflammation.

These bumps could also be an allergic reaction, Shah notes. Be wary of irritating products or cleaning habits, and if your concerns persist, consult your dermatologist about how to keep your skin safe, healthy, and clean.

7

Upper Face

If you're diligently caring for your skin but still notice acne on your upper face and forehead, it could indicate more than your run-of-the-mill pimples. "Acne in the upper face is caused by candida toxins," says Dr. Ben Johnson, founder of the holistic beauty brand Osmosis Beauty. "Candida is a yeast that overgrows in different regions of the gut. Where it is growing in the gut will determine where on the face it appears. Forehead, as one example, is the large intestine."

Of course, face and forehead acne doesn't always mean issues with candida toxins. Not cleaning your face enough or wearing unbreathable clothing that creates a hot and steamy environment for candida to flourish can also both contribute to this kind of acne. But, if these breakouts are persistent, consulting your doctor can help uncover whether gut issues are to blame.

8

Jawline/Hairline

Painful pimples along your jaw or hairline? This type of acne often crops up when you touch your face too much, don't shower often enough, or are experiencing oily skin from hormone swings or stress. But sometimes hairline and jaw bumps can be a sign of a different issue called ovarian inflammation, according to Johnson. "This causes a reduction in normal estrogen production, and therefore an imbalance of testosterone," he tells Bustle. "The result is often seen as increased facial hair, oily skin, acne breakouts along the jawline, chest, or back."

No need to worry though — your OB/GYN can help you find the best solution for this issue.

9

Eyes

Pimple-like bumps around your mouth, nose, and/or eyes might not actually be pimples at all, says Dr. Heidi Waldorf, a dermatologist at Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics. "It could be something called periorificial dermatitis, which is related to rosacea," she says. "It can be treated like rosacea but we also rule out causes like excessive steroid use on the face or a sensitivity to toothpaste."

While acne in these places doesn't guarantee you have another health issue going on, it's always a good idea to monitor your body for changes and to speak with a doctor if something feels off.

Studies referenced:

Chen, Y. (2014). Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation and Allergy Drug Targets, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082169/

Chiu, A. (2003). The Response of Skin Disease to Stress. JAMA, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/479409

Chuan, S. (2010). Polycystic ovary syndrome and acne. Skin Therapy Letter, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21076799/

Eebde, T. (2009). Hormonal Treatment of Acne in Women. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2923944/

Geller, L. (2014). Perimenstrual Flare of Adult Acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4142818/

Junior, R. (2013). Drug-induced acne and rose pearl: similarities. Brazilian Annals of Dermatology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900370/

Koo. E. (2014). Meta-analysis comparing efficacy of antibiotics versus oral contraceptives in acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(14)01291-2/abstract

Omran, A. (2018). Pathogenic Yeasts Recovered From Acne Vulgaris: Molecular Characterization and Antifungal Susceptibility Pattern. Indian Journal of Dermatology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6124225/

Peters, P. (2013). Perioral dermatitis from high fluoride dentifrice: a case report and review of literature. Australian Dental Journal, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23981221/

Sekhon, A. (2020). The Association Between Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Its Dermatological Manifestations. Cureus, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7053678/

Yosipovitch, G. (2007). Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Dermato-Venereologica, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17340019/

Experts:

Dr. Craig Austin, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and creator of the skincare brand Cane + Austin

Dr. Michele J. Farber, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City

Dr. Yoram Harth, MD, chief medical officer at MDacne

Dr. Shari Hicks-Graham, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at Downtown Dermatology in Columbus, Ohio

Dr. Ben Johnson, MD, founder of the holistic beauty brand Osmosis Beauty

Dr. Sejal Shah, MD, a dermatologic surgeon based in New York City

Dr. Heidi Waldorf, MD, a dermatologist at Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics in New York