Sweat Pimples: How To Treat and Prevent Them, from a Board-Certified Dermatologist

Updated: Jul. 03, 2024

Contrary to what their name might suggest, sweat pimples aren't typical acne. A skin doctor shares how to eliminate summer breakouts, and how to prevent them in the first place.

As the summer heat ramps up, so does the importance of keeping up with our skincare—from regular sunscreen application to keeping skin clean from bacteria that cause sweaty odor and blemishes.

Sweating is an essential bodily function that becomes more prevalent during these months. “Sweat is induced by eccrine and apocrine glands and controlled by the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response) to help regulate body temperature,” explains Lisa Pfingstler, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at DuBois Dermatology and Cosmetics. However, this uptick in sweat production can lead to some undesirable skin issues. With the mercury rising, you might find yourself facing the challenge of “sweat pimples.” Contrary to what their name might suggest, these aren’t typical acne.

Ahead, Dr. Pfingstler explains how to handle these pesky skin flare-ups, why they occur, and ways to prevent them.

What are sweat pimples?

Sweat pimples, or breakouts that occur after excess sweating, can arise from various sources. While you might immediately think of a strenuous workout or the friction from clothing rubbing against heated skin—known as acne mechanica—other factors contribute to these irritating skin issues.

Why do sweat pimples form?

One common trigger of sweat-induced skin issues is miliaria, often called “prickly heat” (and not to be confused with the insect-borne illness, malaria). Dr. Pfingstler shares that miliaria occurs when excessive heat leads to the blockage of eccrine sweat ducts by the outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum. This blockage prevents sweat from being expelled, resulting in small bumps known as papules or blister-like vesicles on the skin.

Another related condition is pityrosporum folliculitis, a yeast infection that causes pimple-like reactions and itchy papules on the chest and back, often exacerbated by occlusion, warm weather and excessive sweating.

For those traveling to or living in very hot climates, Dr. Pfingstler highlights another concern: Tropical acne. This condition emerges in extremely hot environments and is characterized by a severe breakout that typically affects individuals not accustomed to such high temperatures.

What do sweat pimples look like?

Sweat pimples appear as small, raised red bumps on the skin that can sometimes cluster together to form larger patches. They often occur in areas where sweat accumulates, such as the back, chest, underarms, and groin. These bumps may feel itchy or prickly and can become more irritated if left sweaty or unclean.

How long do sweat pimples last?

The duration of sweat pimples can vary depending on several factors, including the environment, personal hygiene, and how quickly the affected area is cooled and dried. Typically, they resolve independently within a few days if the skin is kept cool and dry. However, the condition can persist longer if the skin remains moist and warm. Proper skincare and avoiding conditions exacerbating sweating can help speed up recovery and prevent future occurrences.

How to treat sweat pimples

Managing sweat pimples often involves cooling the skin down and returning it to a normal temperature, explains Dr. Pfingstler. Applying ice or soothing lotion can provide immediate relief, and wearing loose, breathable clothing also helps manage symptoms. For conditions such as pityrosporum folliculitis, Dr. Pfingstler recommends topical antifungals, like selenium sulfide shampoo. In cases where topical treatments are ineffective, an oral antifungal may be necessary.

To prevent sweat pimples from worsening, it’s important to take a cool shower immediately after engaging in activities that cause heavy sweating. Additionally, avoid applying heavy creams or lotions to areas prone to these breakouts. Opt for skincare products labeled “non-comedogenic,” which are specifically formulated not to clog pores.

How to prevent sweat pimples

Here are some preventive tips to keep in mind to reduce the likelihood of developing sweat pimples from Dr. Pfingstler:

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water helps regulate body temperature and reduce excessive sweating.

  • Stay cool: Keep your body temperature down during hot weather or while exercising by using fans, air conditioning or taking breaks in a cool environment.

  • Wear appropriate clothing: Opt for loose, lightweight and breathable fabrics that allow sweat to evaporate rather than get trapped against your skin.

  • Maintain good hygiene: Shower promptly after exercising or sweating heavily. Use a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser that won’t clog pores.

  • Change wet clothes quickly: Damp clothing can trap sweat against your skin and exacerbate skin issues, so it’s important to change out of sweaty clothes and undergarments as soon as possible after a workout or exposure to heat.

When to see a dermatologist about sweat pimples

If you’ve tried these prevention and treatment strategies but your symptoms still persist, it’s time to consult a dermatologist. Persistent skin issues could signal an underlying condition that requires professional diagnosis and treatment. Seeking expert advice ensures you get the right care to keep your skin healthy and clear.

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