Arm Acne

Arm acne appears as tiny bumps made up of rough, dead skin cells. Combined with keratin the substance gets trapped in the skin’s pores and forms a ‘plug’ that embeds itself into arm hair follicles.


Arm pimples and acne are itchy, inflamed blocked skin pores. Dead skin cells are continuously sloughed off the body, and bits of them fall into the hair follicles on the arms.

Every hair follicle has a sebum, or oil, producing gland. The sebum captures dead skin cells and traps them in the follicle. Sweat, dirt and bacteria get trapped in pores as well.

Along comes keratin, a normal protein produced by the body. As a stubborn type of ‘glue’, excess production of keratin forms a ‘plug’ made up of the dead skin cells, sebum, dirt, sweat and bacteria.

The plug cements itself into the pores of the hair follicles. The condition manifests itself as a rough acne and pimple rash that spreads across the arms. The rash is not contagious and is treatable.

Causes of Arm Acne and Pimples

  • Keratosis Pilaris (KP). KP is a hereditary condition whereby the body produces excessive keratin. This protein is an adhesive that actually holds the body together.Without it, everything would fall apart, from nails to organs and skin. With KP, excessive keratin amasses on top of the skin of the arms.

The excess keratin binds itself to dead skin cells and plugs up the hair follicles resulting in acne or bumpy pimples on arms called comedones.

Dead cells float off into the air while bits of it fall into the hair follicles across the arms. In the normal process of eliminating dead skin and dirt, growth of the hair pushes the debris out of the follicle.

KP’s overproduction of keratin is called hyperkeratinization. The keratin bumps may also enclose a coiled ingrown hair.

The ingrown hair is trapped when the keratin "caps off" the hair follicle. The hair cannot escape and continues to grow under the skin causing additional inflammation.

KP usually appears in the first ten years of life. It flares up during adolescence then starts easing off around age thirty.

  • Sweat. During sleep, dead skin cells are sloughed off the body. The dead cells, keratin and sweat get trapped in the sheets and clothing. The skin then absorbs it.

In the case of hot, sweaty weather and physical exertion sweat opens the pores. The purpose of sweat is to cool off the body. However, when the pores are opened, debris gets in and forms acne and pimples.

  • Dry skin. Considered a big cause of arm acne, typically 90% of upper arm pimples are a result of dry skin.
  • Vitamin D deficiency.
  • Hormonal shifts. Common to pregnant women, hormonal shifts can cause arm pimples that worsen during pregnancy or after childbirth.
  • Sebum. Everybody produces sebum. However, males tend to produce more than females.
  • Allergens. Allergens appear in many forms. Products such as perfume, perfumed soap and detergents can irritate the skin.
  • Friction. Friction from tight and unnatural fabric clothing.

Additional causes include:

  • Asthma
  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Eczema
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Excess body weight
  • Hay fever
  • Ichthyosis vulgaris
  • Melanoma and taking vemurafenib (Zelboraf®)

Symptoms of Arm Acne and Pimples

  • Tiny bumps on the arms and thighs
  • Clogged pores of white, pink, red, skin-colored or purple
  • Bumps are dry, rough, and like sandpaper
  • Symptoms worsen in winter and can clear with humidity
  • Goose flesh looking skin made up of small bumps the size of a grain of sand

Treatment of Arm Acne and Pimples

These treatments help alleviate uncomfortable conditions and lessen longevity:

1. Wash bedding and sweaty clothes habitually.

2. Bathe in warm water, not hot, and limit bath and shower time to ten minutes.

3. If sweaty, remove clothes immediately and shower or bathe with a salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide wash.

4. Other times, use mild cleansers such as Cetaphil, Dove, Eucerin, Curel.

Do not use harsh, perfumed or drying soaps, and don’t rub the skin too hard. However, gentle exfoliation can be done in the shower.

Pat skin dry leaving a little moisture behind. Next, apply an over-the-counter medicated cream containing urea, lactic acid, alpha hydroxy or salicylic.

Other products that unplug the follicles:

  • Retinoid creams/lotions
  • Sulfur
  • Clearasil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Cetaphil
  • Aloe Vera
  • Tea tree oil
  • 2% green tea extract
  • Corticosteroid to soften bumps

For seriously inflamed skin, use a one percent cortisone cream.

Follow with an oil-free moisturizer containing lanolin, petroleum jelly or glycerin. For instance, Cetaphil or Lubriderm lotions.

5. If arm acne and pimples are especially bad, a stronger moisturizer such as Amlactin 12% moisturizing cream can be prescribed.

6. Gently use loofahs. Use circular motions, don’t scrub up and down. If the pimples remain, replace the loofah with an alpha-hydroxy based lotion.

7. After exfoliation, apply a product called keratolytic. Applying this product removes the dead cell buildup. Sometimes called a chemical exfoliator, it should contain one of the following:

  • Alpha hydroxyl acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • A retinoid (retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene)
  • Salicylic acid
  • Urea

8. Don’t squeeze pimples. Squeezing pushes the blockage further down into the follicle and may result in permanent scars. Don’t scratch or pick.

9. Twice a day, wash your arms using mild soap and warm water.

10. Counteract Vitamin D deficiencies with certain foods such as:

  • Fatty fish like herring, trout, mackerel, tuna, sardines, catfish and sockeye salmon
  • Shitake and button mushrooms
  • Cod liver oil
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified milk
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Fortified cereal

11. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and can be stabilized with supplements. However, too much is toxic. The Institute of Medicine sets the upper limit for age nine years and older at 4,000 IUs. This dosage includes all sources of Vitamin D: food, supplements and sunlight.

Other helpful Vitamins are A, C and E, as well as minerals including magnesium, selenium and zinc.

12. Get some sunshine. While sunlight is a great source of Vitamin D, tanning or prolonged exposure is extremely risky. Short periods of exposure to the sun, i.e. 10 to 15 minutes, are helpful.

Anything beyond that requires a sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher. Don’t use self-tanning lotions as it causes blotchy brown spots.

13. A dermatologist can add laser treatments and ammonium lactate creams.

14. If hormone shifts are the cause of arm acne, doctors prescribe Metrogel.

Many people find that using Metrogel in combination with Amlactin 12% produces exceptional results.

15. Use a humidifier. Dry air and low temperatures are the enemy.

Prevention of Arm Acne and Pimples

  • If predisposed to sweating, wear loose clothes.
  • Do not use tight-fitting straps on accessories that chafe the skin.
  • Use a body cleanser containing fruit acids. Everyday use helps keep pores cleaned out.
  • Use thick oil-free moisturizers on dry skin.
  • Laser hair removal, instead of shaving and waxing, prevents bumps and ingrown hairs.
  • Use a sunscreen at all times.
  • Do not pursue sun tanning or tanning booths.
  • Use humidifiers in dry air environments, which also helps with congestion and sinus issues.
  • Meet the daily requirements of vitamins and minerals