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We all get the occasional spot on our face or neck – but what about on our legs? If you’re bothered by spots on your legs, this is the guide for you.
Whether it’s acne on thighs, red dots all over your calves or unexplained pimples on your shins, we’re here to help.
Acne – or acne vulgaris to give it its medical name – is a condition where hair follicles on the skin become blocked, and a raised red pimple appears over the blocked follicle.
These hair follicles become blocked with dead skin cells, dirt and sebum (oil).
Acne is extremely common. In fact, about 95% of people aged 11 to 30 are affected by acne to some extent.1
It’s most common in teenagers. Acne can affect people of all ages, though.
Also, although the face, neck, chest and back are the most common locations for acne to appear, it can show up just about anywhere on the body. Acne on legs isn’t uncommon.
Although it’s caused by blocked follicles, leg acne isn’t related to hygiene. Genetic factors, stress and hormones are all known to be triggers.2
Bacteria and skin cells block pores from within, no matter how many times you wash your skin. In fact, washing more than twice a day can simply aggravate skin and make acne worse.
The terms ‘spots’ and ‘acne’ are often used interchangeably.
Spots can refer to any small red circular blemish on the skin, whereas acne refers to the specific skin condition acne vulgaris – which causes spots.
Try not to scratch or touch spots you find on your legs. Usually, they’ll go away on their own given time and making some small lifestyle changes (as below).
After shaving, try moisturising the area with a lotion that’s gentle on the skin and contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera. Keeping the skin moisturised softens the skin and soothes rough patches.
You’ll discover dozens of creams, oils and lotions in our skin ailments range which are made using natural ingredients that are kind to skin.
Minimise ingrown hairs by exfoliating your legs with a loofah, dry brush or bath glove every day.
This will help release any hairs which have started to grow into your skin, plus it’s great for circulation.
This might sound a little scary, but relax!
Using a body wash or serum with ingredients like salicylic acid or glycolic acid can help lift off the dead skin cells which lurk on the surface of our skin, help clean out pores and keep the skin clear.15
Minimising tight, synthetic fabrics in favour of breathable, loose cotton on your lower half will enable the skin on your legs to breathe and help prevent sweating and friction, both which cause spots.
To ensure you don’t irritate the area, avoid shaving until the spots have healed.
It might seem obvious but try to shower immediately after a workout. Sweat staying on the skin could block pores and contribute to skin issues such as spots on the back of legs.
If any spots on your legs become particularly inflamed, you might want to visit your local pharmacy to find a topical cream that will aid in relieving pain and swelling.6 None of the treatments above having any effect? It might be time to visit your GP.
Less common causes for spots on the legs you should rule out include:16
They can appear anywhere on the leg, but are most common on the calves, shins and thighs. They don’t hurt.
These dots can range in colour from pale red to purple, in an even pattern and can appear slightly raised and as though you have ‘goosebumps’. Keratosis pilaris is also known as ‘chicken skin’, as it is thought to resemble the skin of a plucked chicken.3
Keratosis pilaris is a common and harmless condition caused by a build-up of keratin inside hair follicles.
It refers to the small red, raised bump you get when an oil gland in your skin becomes blocked with oil and dead skin cells.Pimples on thighs are common.
Pustules can be painful. They appear in an uneven pattern anywhere on the leg and can contain a yellow ‘head’ of pus, which can burst.4
They typically last a few hours (up to a few days) in one particular location on the body, including the legs.
They are caused by a histamine reaction in the skin and triggers include food, pollen, stress and heat.5
It's caused by a bacterial or fungal infection of the hair follicles, resulting in small, inflamed bumps around each hair.
Bacteria can enter the skin through shaving, or from environments like swimming pools and hot tubs.6
They cause little bumps which may contain pus. The hair may be visible under the skin.
Ingrown hairs can get infected and become painful, red and swollen.
They look dark in colour after being exposed to the air.
Blackheads can appear anywhere on the body where there is a hair follicle and an oil-producing gland. A blackhead on leg or arm areas is less common than on the face, but they do happen.
Creatures such as gnats, flies, ticks, mites, bedbugs fleas and even spiders are capable of leaving angry red spots on your lower legs and ankles.
If you have a cluster of small, red lumps on your leg which may be itchy, it could be an insect bite.7
Clusters of large, dry spots on the legs could be a rash caused by an allergen. Allergic contact dermatitis can cause blistered, dry and itchy areas which appear red on lighter skin and brown on darker skin.8
Allergic contact dermatitis appears in an uneven pattern. It’s caused by an irritant which has had direct contact with your skin.
This is when your body over-produces skin cells in certain areas, leading to a flaky build-up of cells in patches.
Spots caused by psoriasis are typically dry, flaky or crusty and are common on the knees and ankles, and can be itchy. 9
It sounds terrifying, but scabies is actually relatively common and not serious – although it can cause intense itching and raised, red spots and requires over-the-counter treatment.10
The culprit of the sore, red bumps on your legs could be your shaving routine. Tiny black spots on legs (or ‘strawberry legs’) are caused by shaving.
Also known as razor burn, a shaving rash typically happens immediately after you’ve shaved or when the hairs start to grow back. Tell-tale signs of razor burn include an itchy, inflamed top layer of skin and red bumps which look like small pimples which have no pus-filled ‘head’.
Razor burn is common on both the legs and bikini line.
Perspiration (sweating) can cause acne-like spots on the legs. This is because sweat which isn’t washed away promptly causes pores to become blocked.
Pimples caused by sweating usually appear on the thighs and buttock area.
Heat rash, also known as prickly heat, is where sweat glands become blocked with sweat which can no longer evaporate, can cause a rash in the form of clusters of small red spots on the legs.11 A damp cloth, calamine lotion or anti-histamine tablets are all possible heat rash remedies.
Form-fitting clothing such as tights, leggings, skinny jeans and even tall boots can lead to spots on the legs, thanks to the friction. The term for these types of spots are acne mechanica, which can be caused by pressure, friction, rubbing, squeezing, or stretching.12
Much like with friction caused by clothing, chafing of the skin – for example the inner thighs – can cause spots to form.13
The chemicals in many common laundry powders and gels can cause spots or allergic contact dermatitis rashes. Irritated skin and spots on the groin or bikini line are commonly caused by using a detergent too harsh for your skin.
A food allergy or intolerance could cause redness, itching and swelling in patches on the skin, including the legs. Dairy, nuts, soy and wheat are common culprits.14
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Last updated: 2 June 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.