Ever the nuisance from puberty well into adulthood, acne can show up at times—and places— on our bodies, that are especially inconvenient and unpleasant. Case in point: vulvar acne.
Vulvar acne, explains Atlanta-based nurse practitioner Kathryn Garren, WHNP-BC, is “just like acne that occurs on more common locations on the body and is characterized by inflamed and sometimes infected sebaceous glands located within the skin.”
So, why do some people get vulvar acne, and how can the issue be prevented, as well as treated? We spoke to experts to get to the root of the cause.
Vulvar Acne: What to Know
“The vulva, like every part of our body, has sweat glands and hair follicles,” says Miami-based OB-GYN, Dr. Jaclyn Ferro, MD. “These follicles can accumulate build-up, which can cause acne.” This particular acne, Garren points out, only occurs on the vulva or external pubic area.
The main causes of vulvar acne, Ferro says, is typically due to sweat, or retaining moisture (i.e. staying in wet bathing suits or workout clothes, not maintaining good vaginal hygiene) that can lead to irritation.
Acne can also occur, Ferro notes, because of douching, using non-hypoallergenic soaps, spermicides, certain detergents and/or harsh products “that can change the vaginal pH and aggravate the skin.”
Dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, of New York City, says the most common type of acne he sees in this area of the body is due to folliculitis from hair removal, such as waxing or shaving. “The skin barrier becomes disrupted, [and] a superficial infection may develop around the hair follicles.”
Those who are more susceptible to vulvar acne, Garren says, include those who have hormonal imbalances, those who are overweight, those with allergies/sensitive skin, those who exercise frequently and/or those who are prone to sweating.
How to Avoid Vulvar Acne
Because vulvar acne can be traced back to sweat and moisture retention, Ferro says that to decrease the chances of having the condition, you should avoid tight clothes like spandex, and remember to change out of your workout clothes or bathing suit immediately.
Another thing you can do, Ferro says, is add probiotics to your diet, “which can help to maintain the normal bacteria on our skin, intestines, bladder, and vagina…and helps fight off bad bacteria from growing.”
For folliculitis, Zeichner puts it simply: “The best way to avoid [vulvar acne] is to avoid shaving or waxing, which commonly leads to ingrown hairs.”
If you want to shave the region, but avoid bumps, Zeichner recommends applying an after-shave lotion “to maintain skin barrier health, minimize inflammation, and reduce the risk of inflamed skin.”
When it comes to waxing, Ferro says to make sure the area is clean prior to waxing. Whether you shave or wax, Ferro notes that it’s important to exfoliate before and after. If you want to avoid shaving and waxing entirely, laser hair removal is an increasingly popular option.
How to Treat Vulcar Acne
Seeing bumps down there may certainly give you pause. After all, folliculitis, Zeichner explains, “looks like red, pus-filled bumps around the hair follicles.”
If you develop a bump or pimple, Zeichner says you can apply an over-the-counter antibiotic, such as Bacitracin. “You can also try antibacterial soaps to minimize the risk of infection,” he says, adding that it’s important to only use these products externally.
However, if you are in pain, Ferro says you can take Advil/Motrin/Ibuprofen, as well as use a warm compress or take a sitz bath to open up the pores. The thing you must avoid, all the experts agree, is to not pop the pimple(s), as this can lead to an infection.
Even if you do all of these things and your acne symptoms are not improving or are getting worse, Garren says it’s important to call your healthcare provider for an evaluation. This is especially important if your symptoms are continuing for more than a few days, if you have fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, severe genital or pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, or discharge, as this can be the signs of another issue.
Depending on the cause or severity of your symptoms of vulvar acne, Ferro says that some patients may receive injectable steroids to “provide immediate relief of pain and inflammation,” as well as to reduce scarring. Antibiotics may also be prescribed to help with an outbreak, Ferro explains, or if the acne is infected.