What Does It Mean When Acne Is on Certain Areas of Your Face?

Forehead and jawline and cheeks, oh my!
woman with acne on her chin

When you have a breakout, it can feel like you’re walking around with a flashing neon sign on your face that says, “ZIT ALERT!!” How can you banish those blemishes (and turn off that annoying imaginary sign)?

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As dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD, explains, “Acne is common, so it seems like it should be easy to treat. But so many factors play into it, including genetics, hormones and the natural flora [aka healthy bacteria] of your skin.”  

One clue to what’s going on? Location, location, location. “Where on your face you have the acne helps determine how to treat it,” Dr. Kassouf says. This is called acne face mapping. In some cases, acne in a specific area of the face can be linked to a deeper issue. In other cases, acne might just be coincidental or genetic. Keep reading to learn more about common places for facial acne and how you can stop it in its tracks.

Why you get acne on the forehead

If you’ve ever read a beauty blog or magazine, you know about the T-zone.  Dr. Kassouf says the T-shaped area across your forehead and down the nose is a prime locale for classic blackheads and whiteheads. That’s because this area tends to have more oil glands than other parts of the face. 

To treat T-zone acne, try:

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  • Salicylic acid: Available in lots of over-the-counter (OTC) products, this ingredient helps break up dead skin cells and clear out pores, Dr. Kassouf says.
  • Benzoyl peroxide: Another easy-to-find ingredient in OTC acne creams, this also helps clear plugged pores. But it can interact with some other topical acne treatments, so don’t mix and match without talking to a doctor.
  • Retinoids: Retinoids are effective acne fighters, Dr. Kassouf says. But they tend to work better as long-term maintenance than short-term spot treatments. Topical retinoid creams and lotions are available in prescription and OTC strength.
  • Different hair products: Pimples along your hairline might be caused by your mousse or (gasp!) your favorite dry shampoo. “Hair products tend to be very waxy and can build up at the hairline and cause flare-ups,” Dr. Kassouf says. If you suspect your favorite hair product is to blame, focus it on the ends of your tresses and steer clear of your scalp.

Why you get acne on the chin and jawline

The jawline and chin are sensitive to hormones, Dr. Kassouf says. Teen boys often get acne along the jawline during growth spurts. Girls and women may see their chins erupt as hormones ebb and flow during their menstrual cycles. Compared to typical T-zone pimples, acne here is likely to be deeper, bigger and more inflamed, she says.

To treat chin and jawline acne, try:

  • Hormones: For women, Dr. Kassouf says birth control pills can help keep this acne under control. But some types of hormonal birth control can make breakouts worse, so talk to your doctor to find one that helps rather than hurts.
  • Sulfur: Topical treatments containing sulfur can help reduce the inflammation of deep acne. They’re available in OTC and prescription varieties.
  • Retinoids: This superstar acne fighter can also help ward off hormonal acne.

Why you get acne on the cheeks

Unlike breakouts on your chin or T-zone, spots on your cheeks don’t necessarily reveal much about the underlying cause. Could be genetic, could be a fluke …

“Cheeks don’t tell us much,” Dr. Kassouf admits. Still, there are some things to keep in mind when treating blemishes here.

The skin on your cheeks tends to get dry and irritated more easily than the skin on the rest of your face, so don’t go crazy with acne treatments, she says. You can treat cheeks with the same products you use elsewhere, including salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids.

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But instead of applying it daily, go for every other day on your cheeks. “You’ll still get the benefits without the irritation,” she says.

Four ways to prevent acne on your face

Wherever your breakouts tend to erupt, these general skincare tips can help:

  • Stay clean: Wash your face once a day with a gentle cleanser.
  • Favor foam: Dr. Kassouf recommends foaming cleansers rather than lotion cleansers since the suds are better at lifting oils and dirt from the skin.
  • Exfoliate with care: If you scrub too aggressively, you might irritate your skin and make acne worse. “Use exfoliating brushes or scrubs once or twice a week at most. If you have any irritation, back off,” she says.
  • Wash makeup brushes regularly: They can get gunked up with bacteria and oils, contributing to plugged pores. Try shampooing them every week or two with a gentle, fragrance-free shampoo.

We all have to take our lumps sometimes. But if you can read the clues in your breakouts, those lumps will hopefully be few and far between.  

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