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Fungal Acne Is A Real Thing With Real Solutions: A Guide To Defeating It

By Megan Griffith

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao,
MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist

Fungal acne looks like regular acne but is actually caused by an entirely different kind of infection. Typical acne, also called vulgaris, is caused by a combination of inflammation, excess sebum (the oil produced by our skin), and a particular type of bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes or p. acnes. Fungal acne, on the other hand, is caused by a type of fungus known as Malassezia and it can be worsened by factors like inflammation and excess sebum.

Fungal acne can be caused by sweating especially if you are staying on under a moist and warm environment.

The first step to treating fungal acne is recognizing it. Treating fungal acne like normal acne vulgaris will only result in frustration and consistent breakouts. Then, it’s important to seek out treatments that actually fight the Malassezia fungus, rather than p. acnes bacteria. If you think you might have fungal acne, read on to discover how you can get clear skin.

What Is Fungal Acne?

Fungal acne is typically caused by a yeast-like fungus1 called Malassezia, which can cause an infection in the hair follicles. This infection can make the skin itchy and red, and produce pus-filled bumps that might look a lot like acne vulgaris. So how can you tell them apart? First of all, most normal acne is not itchy, so if your acne itches, there’s a chance it could be Malassezia. Second, fungal acne tends to be very uniform, with all the various bumps being almost exactly the same size and shape, while normal acne has a varied appearance. Finally, if you are using an anti-acne cream containing benzoyl peroxide and see that it is having absolutely no effect on your acne whatsoever, there’s a chance it could be fungal acne. The best way to get fungal acne diagnosed for sure is by seeing a dermatologist.

The relatively good news is that we all have this sort of fungus2 on our body and it doesn’t have to cause any skin issues. The problem only occurs when a suitable environment is provided for the fungus to thrive and develop further3. For instance, when your body is warm and moist, such as after a workout or during a visit to the beach, you may get this sort of infection which shows up as tiny pimples. If other people around you are physically providing a suitable environment for this kind of fungus, you may get it from them, as well. After all, fungi can easily spread from person to person. Nevertheless, you can get rid of it by changing some of your daily routines and adding a few products to your treatment regimen.

What Can You Do About It?

The best way to fight fungal acne is to prevent it from forming in the first place, which means making sure your body doesn’t become a suitable environment for growing fungi. This means showering quickly after working out and keeping your exercise clothes and equipment clean. However, once fungal acne has developed, showering and staying clean won’t be enough to get rid of the infection. You will need to kill the Malassezia fungus in order to get rid of fungal acne.

One way to kill Malassezia fungus is with anti-dandruff shampoo4, since dandruff is caused by the exact same fungus. According to the previously-linked study, Nizoral is the most effective brand. This should be an effective treatment option for fungal acne found on the body or scalp, but if you have sensitive skin, you probably don’t want to use it on your face. Dandruff shampoo contains other chemicals that are likely too harsh for thin, sensitive facial skin. Instead, we recommend topical sulfur5. Sulfur is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, so if you have a mixture of regular acne and fungal acne, it could actually treat both conditions. Beware, most sulfur products are a bit smelly, but you’ll want to avoid any products that use added fragrances to cover up the smell since artificial fragrance can easily cause increased irritation, which will likely only make your acne worse.

The Verdict On Fungal Acne

The important thing to remember is that while it sounds quite disturbing, what we dub as fungal acne is actually one of the more innocent and easy-to-shake-off kinds of breakouts. Pretty much all you have to do is try to maintain better hygiene and wash up well every time you get active and sweaty. Wash your clothing, and especially your gym attire, as regularly as possible. Opt for a salicylic acid-based facial wash and look for exfoliating wet wipes that you can take with you on the go.

References:

  1. Thayyikkanu A.B., Kindo A.J., Veeraraghavan M. Malassezia—Can it be ignored?. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 2015;60(4):332-339.
  2. Saunders C.W., Scheynius A., Heitman J. Malassezia fungi are specialized to live on skin and associated with dandruff, eczema, and other skin diseases. PLOS Pathogens. 2012;8(6):e1002701.
  3. Coleman J., Johnson S.M. The importance of recognizing yeast acne Malassezia versus Priopionibacterium. Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society. 2017;113(7):164-165.
  4. Bulmer A.C., Bulmer G.S. The antifungal action of dandruff shampoos. Mycopathologia. 1999;147(2):63-65.
  5. Gupta A.K., Nicol K. The use of sulfur in dermatology. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 2004;3(4):427-431.
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