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3 Reasons Why Your Acne Might Be Itching

A woman in a white shirt scratching her face wondering, “Why does my acne itch?”

 

Repeated acne sufferers know few things are worse than a breakout — save for a breakout that itches!

It’s awful enough that you have to experience the embarrassment and pain that comes with acne, but itchiness can really drive your stress levels over the top! Itchy acne makes it impossible to forget you’re broken out. You’re constantly aware of the bumps on your skin, and you know if you itch, you’ll only make things worse.

Are you one of the thousands of people asking, “Why does my acne itch?” Read on!

What Is Itching?

While itching can be a symptom of acne, many other common ailments can cause an itch. These include:

  • Insect bites
  • Burns and other wounds
  • Exposure to certain fabrics or chemicals
  • Dry skin
  • Skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis
  • Allergic reactions
  • Certain detergents
  • Certain diseases like lymphoma or kidney disease

Itching is how our skin cells tell us something isn’t right. Our skin is loaded with things called pruriceptors. These are nerve endings that, when activated, cause that pesky itching sensation. They’re usually activated by skin damage, inflammation, or excessive dryness.

Once the pruriceptors’ signal reaches the brain through the spinal cord, the reflexive response is to itch using your fingernails. But itching is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, especially when triggered by a chronic skin condition like acne.

Why Does My Acne Itch?

Understanding how acne occurs will help answer the question, “Why does my acne itch?”

Clogged pores are the simple reason why your skin develops acne, but how your pores become clogged is more complicated.

There are tiny cavities beneath your skin’s surface called hair follicles. Connected to these hair follicles are the sebaceous glands, which produce an oily substance called sebum. Sebum is released from the sebaceous glands through our pores, which are small holes in the hair follicles. Sebum production is necessary to keep our skin balanced and healthy, but too much can spell trouble.

Along the inside wall of your hair follicles are cells called keratinocytes. These cells produce a protein called keratin, which heals wounds and keeps your skin healthy. Ideally, keratin travels to your skin’s surface, but it can sometimes get trapped inside your pores, along with excess sebum and dead skin cells.

Those clogged pores are now the perfect environment for the usually harmless bacteria on your skin to thrive. The result is inflammation and swelling under your skin’s surface. At this stage, you might notice a red lump under your skin that is likely warm to the touch and possibly painful.

Eventually, this mixture will move from the follicle to your skin, creating — you guessed it! — a pimple.

3 Reasons Why Your Acne Might Itch

Once that pimple appears, you’re likely to experience some irritation. That slight discomfort can quickly become full-blown itchiness, and you could find yourself asking, “Why does my acne itch?”

Here are the three most common reasons.

Dry Skin

Excessive dryness occurs when there’s not enough moisture in the skin, throwing off your natural balance. The texture of your skin will become rough and flaky.

When this happens, your skin may produce additional sebum to try to balance things out. Unfortunately, this excess oil production can lead to acne breakouts. A new breakout on top of already dry skin is likely to itch. Excessively dry skin, or skin that’s been itched too hard, might even break open and bleed, and the open wound may itch while it’s healing.

The best way to combat dry skin is by using a hydrating moisturizer — the brand Cetaphil makes a great one. Be sure to choose a moisturizer that’s non-comedogenic, meaning it’s less likely to clog your pores and cause more acne. Some moisturizers contain ingredients that can heal a breakout, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin.

Be careful not to use too much moisturizer. Using too much product, or more than the recommended amount, can cause more dryness as your skin learns to produce less of its own moisture.

Reaction to Products

It may seem counterintuitive, but some skin care products may be causing your itchy acne rather than fighting it!

Your skin may have an adverse reaction to some acne-fighting ingredients. These include salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids, which can be quite harsh on your skin. If you suspect this is the case, cut back on these products and see if the itchiness improves. For example, instead of applying a product twice per day, cut back to once per day or every other day. Then, gradually increase the frequency and amount as your skin acclimates to the product. If the problem persists, you may need to find another treatment option.

Other products that can cause an itchy reaction in your skin include cosmetics, fragrances, soaps, even laundry detergent! You may be experiencing an allergic reaction to an ingredient in one of these products. Check your labels for harsh ingredients, and when in doubt, opt for a more natural alternative. For example, there exist laundry detergents made for people with sensitive skin and beauty products that don’t contain harsh ingredients like alpha-hydroxy acids

Also, check your cosmetics and other products to make sure they haven’t expired. If your makeup has passed its expiration date, it can cause redness, itchiness, and/or irritation.

Excessive Heat

Exposure to high temperatures and humidity for long periods of time can cause something called a heat rash. Too much sweat on your skin can clog your sweat glands, leading to an itchy rash, and if you already have a breakout, the rash will only make things worse.

Sweat on its own can make an acne breakout itch, and once you start itching, the irritation is likely to worsen. Sweat can also cause products such as cosmetics to drip down your face, causing an itchy reaction. 

If you suspect excessive heat is the problem, move to a cooler space as soon as you can, and wash your face or shower with cold water. To help with itching, apply a cold compress to your skin for about 20 minutes. Do not itch the affected skin, especially if you also have an acne breakout. That will only make things worse.

Infographic: 3 Reasons Why Your Acne Might Be Itching

What Else Could It Be?

Three types of acne are more likely to itch than others. If you’re tempted to itch your face, one of these acne types could be the culprit!

Cystic acne. This acne is actually cysts that develop under the skin’s surface. Instead of the pustules typically associated with breakouts, cystic acne appears as painful bumps. These bumps are too far under the skin to get to the actual cyst, and trying to pop them will only make things worse. This form of acne often causes a tingly feeling no amount of itching will help. A cold or warm compress can help ease this symptom, but if you suffer from cystic acne, it’s best to see a dermatologist.

Pityrosporum (Malassezia) folliculitis. Folliculitis means inflammation of the hair follicles. One cause is excessive growth of a yeast known as pityrosporum, leading to pityrosporum (or Malassezia) folliculitis. This condition is most likely to occur on your upper body rather than your face. Though the tiny bumps look like acne, regular acne treatments won’t help. Instead, figure out what caused the yeast overgrowth. It could be tight-fitting clothes, excessive sweating, oily products, a weakened immune system, or medications like birth control pills, antibiotics, and steroids.

Bacterial folliculitis. A bacteria called staphylococcus aureus causes this type of folliculitis. This is also called a staph infection, which is common but potentially deadly. It leads to inflammation in the hair follicles and forms red, itchy bumps on the skin. You may develop a staph infection from common activities like hot tubbing, wearing tight clothes, or hair removal through plucking, shaving or waxing. To relieve the itching, use a warm compress and a benzoyl peroxide wash. If you’re using it on your face, dilute the wash so the mixture is only 4% peroxide; on other areas of your body, aim for 10%. While the infection heals, make sure your skin is always clean and dry.

If any of these conditions don’t clear up in a few days, call your doctor. You may need antibiotics or another prescription medication.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully now you’ve answered the question, “Why does my acne itch?”

Remember, itching can lead to open wounds, infections, and scarring. If you’re dealing with an itchy acne breakout, start acting right away to determine the root of the problem. Once you find the cause, you’ll know the best way to relieve the itching and irritation so your skin can heal.

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