Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/6/2021
Acne is a common skin condition that can develop on your face and body. Yet some forms of acne, as well as some skin conditions that look similar to acne, may cause your skin to feel itchy and uncomfortable.
Dealing with itchy skin can be a seriously stressful experience, especially when the affected skin is covered in acne lesions.
Luckily, almost all forms of acne, as well as itchy skin conditions that look similar to acne, are treatable.
Read on to learn how acne develops, as well as the factors that may cause your acne to feel irritated and itchy.
You’ll also find information on non-acne (yet itchy) skin conditions that resemble acne breakouts, along with science-based treatments to help you clear those itchy acne breakouts without damaging your skin.
Acne develops when your hair follicles (pores) become clogged due to a buildup of sebum (a natural oil that’s produced by your sebaceous glands) and dead skin cells.
When a pore becomes clogged, it can form into a comedone — which is a small acne lesion that’s either open and exposed to the air or closed.
These acne lesions are referred to as blackheads and whiteheads.
Like other parts of your body, your skin contains bacteria. When bacteria start to multiply inside a comedone, it can become infected, inflamed and painful.
Inflammatory acne ranges in severity from small papules and pustules to large, tender and often painful nodules and cystic acne.
And if you have inflammatory acne, you may notice that the skin around your acne lesions feels itchy and uncomfortable.
In a study carried out in Singapore, researchers found that 70 percent of people treated for acne at a local clinic experienced itching as part of their breakouts.
So, what causes acne to itch? In the study mentioned above, most patients noted that their skin typically felt itchy near the middle of the day, with sweating, heat and stress as the common factors (read: culprits) related to itching.
Several other factors may contribute to itchy acne, too, including:
Dry skin. Acne-prone skin is often dry, and dry skin is often itchy. When your skin feels overly dry and uncomfortable, it’s common and normal to feel an urge to scratch it to provide itch relief.
Acne treatments. Some over-the-counter acne treatments
and prescription medications can dry out your skin, which may make itchy acne worse. Others may cause skin irritation that increases your urge to itch, touch or rub your skin.
Hats, helmets and other clothing that touches your skin. Certain fabrics, particularly scratchy fabrics such as wool, nylon and spandex, can rub against your skin and cause it to become irritated
Sun exposure. Sunburn can cause your skin to develop a severe, deep itch that’s often referred to as “hell’s itch.” This type of itching usually starts one to three days after your skin becomes sunburned.
Note: Itching from sunburn may feel more intense or severe if the affected skin also has acne.
Sometimes, breakouts of itchy “acne” are actually caused by different skin conditions that have a similar appearance to acne.
Since these conditions often have totally different causes (vs. acne), acne treatments may not be effective at controlling them.
Rosacea is a condition that can cause redness and acne-like breakouts that affect your cheeks, forehead, nose and chin.
It’s often mistaken for acne, as many of the symptoms look similar to an inflamed acne breakout.
Folliculitis is a type of skin infection that can develop in your hair follicles.
It can affect any part of your body where hair grows, from your face to your limbs and torso.
Most cases of folliculitis look similar to acne, with inflamed hair follicles that have a red ring.
If your skin is affected by folliculitis, it may feel itchy, uncomfortable and even painful to the touch.
Folliculitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection, although it can also develop due to a fungal or viral infection.
Common sources of folliculitis include the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and the Malassezia species of fungi.
Many people develop folliculitis after spending time in a hot tub. In fact, bacterial folliculitis, one of the most common types of folliculitis, is often referred to as “hot tub folliculitis.”
Other habits that may cause folliculitis include wearing tight clothing that rubs against your skin, shaving or waxing your hair and using certain types of medication.
Perioral dermatitis is a rash that develops around your mouth. In some cases, it may also affect your eyes or nose.
Perioral dermatitis may cause your skin to feel itchy and have a bumpy texture, like it’s affected by lots of small pimples.
When your acne feels itchy and irritated, the urge to scratch it can feel overwhelming. However, it’s important not to rub acne-prone skin for several reasons:
Scratching may worsen your itchy acne. Whenever you touch acne-prone skin, you risk pushing the contents of the acne lesions deeper into your skin.
This may make your acne worse and prolong breakouts.
Touching your skin can spread bacteria
. When you touch a pimple, there’s a real risk of spreading bacteria from your hands onto the affected skin. This may cause your itchy acne to become infected, inflamed and more severe.
Scratching may cause permanent acne scars. Anything that worsens itchy acne, such as trying to pop pimples or scratching your skin, can worsen inflammation and increase your risk of developing permanent acne scars when your breakouts clear.
Since itchy acne is both a cosmetic problem and a serious annoyance, it’s important to treat it as soon as it develops. Try the following approaches to relieve itching and get rid of your acne breakouts for good.
Skin often becomes itchy when it’s dry. If your face is dry and affected by acne, treating it with a moisturizer can improve hydration and may make itching less severe.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends treating dry skin with a moisturizer that’s free of additives, fragrances and perfumes.
To cool your skin and further treat itching, you can place your moisturizer in the refrigerator before applying it.
One good way to help calm itchy acne: Hers acne moisturizer, which is formulated with hydrating hyaluronic acid and squalene. It’s designed to be gentle on acne-prone skin.
While there’s no acne medication designed specifically for itchy acne breakouts, some products available over the counter may help to control itching.
If your skin is inflamed, itchy and uncomfortable, taking an over-the-counter, oral antihistamine may also help control your symptoms.
Calamine lotion, which is available from your local drug store, is often a good and helpful bet for soothing itchy, uncomfortable skin.
If you have mild or moderate acne, you may be able to treat it and prevent acne breakouts from coming back with an over-the-counter cleanser, cream or spot treatment.
When you’re comparing over-the-counter acne products, look for science-based ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and topical retinoids.
These are proven to treat acne breakouts, but they may cause your skin to feel dry and irritated in the short term.
If you have severe acne, you’ll get the best results by using prescription medication to get rid of your breakouts and prevent them from returning.
Several prescription medications are used to treat acne breakouts, including the topical retinoid tretinoin and the antibiotic clindamycin.
These work by unblocking clogged pores and preventing acne-causing bacteria from multiplying on your skin.
Our Prescription Acne Cream, which is formulated specifically to treat stubborn breakouts, uses tretinoin, clindamycin and other acne-fighting ingredients to promote clear, healthy, irritation-free skin.
If your itchy acne is severe — for example, you have nodular acne that just doesn’t seem to respond to topical treatments — it’s best to connect with a healthcare professional.
A healthcare provider can specialize in conditions that affect your skin, hair, and nails, including severe or persistent acne.
To stop your breakouts and relieve itching, they may use medications such as corticosteroids or the oral acne treatment isotretinoin.
In some cases, your healthcare professional may recommend the birth control pill, spironolactone or an oral antibiotic to further control your breakouts.
Itchy acne can be an annoying, unpleasant issue, yet it’s usually easy to treat with the right combination of self-care, acne medication and the willpower to resist scratching your skin. (Hands off!)
These acne treatments include options to treat breakouts of all types, from mild acne to stubborn, persistent pimples.
For best results, it could be helpful to connect with a healthcare provider, to see which might be best for you. Some acne medications can dry the skin, and cause further irritation.
Want to learn more about treating acne — along with details on the most effective products and skin care techniques? Check out this guide to the best science-based acne treatments.