All The Boob Questions You Were Afraid To Ask, Answered

After your face, the skin on your breasts is quite literally the most front-and-center on your body — which makes it easy to obsess over any aberration. But just because you’re seeing strange hairs, chafing, pigment changes, bumps, or feeling a weird itch (you know the one), doesn’t mean you need to panic.

“Skin is skin, so if you can have a condition elsewhere on your body, you can have it on your breasts,” says Lauren Streicher, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University medical school and author of Sex Rx. “People have the idea that if it’s on the breasts, it’s automatically serious, but that’s not the case.”

So go ahead and invest in those plunging necklines, because these experts have quick and easy solutions to your biggest boob problems. (Not #bigboobproblems, though — that’s another story entirely.)
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Nipple Hairs
If you’ve ever sprouted long, dark hairs on your nipples (seemingly out of nowhere), you’re not alone. “Nipple hair is caused by hormones, just like chin hair that might suddenly appear,” says Doris Day, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University medical school. “It’s very common — I treat it almost every day.”

If you don’t like them, the fix is simple: Remove them. You can carefully tweeze or opt for something more permanent, like electrolysis or laser removal. (Just skip razors, which are dangerous in this sensitive area.)

Dr. Day says the only time to worry about the offending hairs is if you have irregular periods or hormonal acne, because the hair growth could be a symptom of polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS. If that’s the case, get to a doctor for some blood work. Otherwise, get out the tweezers.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Painful, raw patches are the last thing you want anywhere near your bust. But friction from a bra can cause irritation that you don’t notice until it’s too late. “Usually, the source of chafing is an ill-fitting bra,” Dr. Day says. “But if you’re nursing, that moisture can make the situation worse.”

Runners also have issues with nipple chafing, if a sports bra is made of an irritating fabric or doesn’t fit properly. “Think of it like preventing a callus or blister on your foot,” says Dr. Day. “You want to protect the area from any repeated rubbing.” Chafing pads or silicone sheets can help prevent friction. And it’s always wise to go for a bra-fitting.

To soothe the skin, cover the area in petroleum jelly, like Aquaphor, or a diaper-rash cream that will moisturize and calm inflammation and prevent the problem from getting worse, Dr. Day says.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Age Spots
UV damage causes uneven pigmentation anywhere the dastardly rays can reach. Since your chest is frequently exposed and high up on the body, you’ll likely notice more spots as you age. In addition to wearing sun protection and smoothing on antioxidants, you may need to use a topical skin-bleaching agent, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He suggests talking to your dermatologist to determine whether an over-the-counter or prescription hydroquinone cream will work best for your skin tone and issues.

In some instances, doctors need to pull out the big guns (a.k.a. lasers). “The skin on the chest and neck can develop a special type of damage called poikiloderma, [which includes] dark spots, light spots, broken blood vessels, and redness,” Dr. Zeichner says. Lasers can help treat large surface areas with this condition.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Stretch Marks
If your breasts tend to fluctuate in size, you can develop stretch marks. The striations are a sign that you’ve lost or gained weight, and there’s not much you can do to prevent or erase them other than laser treatments.

If you haven’t experienced any weight changes, purple stretch marks can be a sign of Cushing’s disease, Dr. Streicher says. The condition is a sign your body produces too much cortisol, and it should be managed by a doctor.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Your bust skin is not immune to the many possible irritants that cause skin to feel itchy. Dr. Streicher says that the itching could be irritation from friction, caused by loose-fitting clothing or a reaction to fabric or detergent. Or you could just have dry skin. (In which case, bust out the moisturizer.) Some women also experience itchy nipples during pregnancy as a result of hormonal changes in the skin.

“If both sides are itching, then I’m usually not worried,” says Dr. Streicher. But if it's only on one side, have a doctor take a look — there are some rare medical conditions that could be to blame.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Bumpy Areola
You’ve probably never noticed that sometimes your areola looks bumpier than at other times. A couple things could be the cause:

1. You have oil glands there, Dr. Streicher explains. So it is possible to have acne in the area. Make sure to clean the area with soap and change out of sweaty sports bras immediately. If the bumps are painful, however, go see a dermatologist.

2. The bumps also appear naturally, because they are glands designed to make breast-feeding easier. Called Montgomery tubercles, these little bumps allow the skin to expand and contract so the baby can latch on to the nipple. And they secrete a fluid to keep the nipple lubricated while breast-feeding. (How cool is that?)

These bumps are just part of how the skin adapts to changes — even if you’re not pregnant — and usually aren't a sign of any trouble. Actually, seeing the Montgomery tubercles can indicate that your breast is stimulated — which is a good thing, right?
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
And then, there are the fun little bumps outside of the areola — commonly known as chest acne. To treat them, you need to understand whether you’re suffering from acne or folliculitis.

“Folliculitis looks like puss-filled pimples and develops when the hair follicle becomes infected,” says Dr. Zeichner. Your skin is prone to the condition when you leave on your sports bra too long — so, again, be sure to always strip it off immediately and rinse with a bacteria-killing wash. (Dr. Zeichner recommends Hibiclens — just do not use it on your face or prior to nursing.) In some cases, folliculitis can be caused by fungus that naturally lives on the skin and worsens with moisture, oil, and sweat. For that, you might need a prescription antibacterial wash or anti-fungal cream.

Then, there are the more common acne breakouts — and the approach is very similar. “Acne is caused by skin cells clogging pores, oil accumulation, bacteria, and inflammation,” says Dr. Zeichner. “So you have to consider all the causes.” One of the best places to start is with a gentle exfoliator, like salicylic acid. “You have to be careful not to cause irritation, but a salicylic acid cleanser is a staple to treat acne,” Dr. Zeichner says. And, just as you would with facial acne, see a doctor if your condition doesn’t improve. “Acne has so many components, as well as a genetic factor, so you may not be able to treat it with one product,” says Dr. Zeichner.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
While a rash or area of scaly, red skin isn’t a health crisis, you should seek medical treatment to manage the condition. “It’s possible to have eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and yeast infections in the breast area,” Dr. Day says.

Since sweat can collect around the bustline, the moisture creates an ideal environment for yeast, which can result in a red, bumpy rash. Dr. Day suggests keeping the area dry with anti-fungal powder, like Zeasorb. If the cause is eczema, you might need prescription steroids to calm flare-ups. And a dermatologist can suggest the best topical treatment for psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis — as well as rule out some other possible sources of rashes, like ringworm or scabies. (After “jumping jacks,” those might be the last two words your boobs want to hear.)
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Fine Lines
If you're diligent about smearing SPF and anti-aging products on your face, bravo! Just don't forget to take them down past your neck, too. “The décolletage area has some of the thinnest skin on the body and is often forgotten when it comes to sunscreen and anti-aging treatments,” says Dr. Zeichner. As a result, the chest can suffer incidental sun damage on a daily basis — which adds crepe-y texture and fine lines. “The skin tends to develop vertical lines that start in the cleavage and work their way up,” Dr. Zeichner says.

The best solution is to start treating the skin on your chest with the same care you would your face. Apply a topical antioxidant serum containing vitamin C, vitamin E, ferulic acid, or resveratrol in the evening to assist in repairing existing sun damage. (Try SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic.) Then, during the day, be sure to smooth on a moisturizer with SPF, like EltaMD UV Clear, to any exposed skin.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Darkened Nipples
When nipples turn a darker shade, the cause is hormonal and is often one of the first signs of pregnancy, Dr. Streicher explains. “Nipples are designed for breast-feeding, so the darker they appear against your skin, the easier they are for the baby to find." Hormonal changes due to your menstrual cycle or a side effect from a medication could also impact their shade. Again, if it concerns you, see a doctor.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Though it shouldn't be so embarrassing, a lot of women do stress about one boob being bigger than the other. “The first thing that always comes up in my exam room is asymmetry,” Dr. Streicher says. "Many of my patients worry that their breasts don’t look the same, are different sizes, or something freaky is happening with their nipple or areola." But when it comes to breasts, “normal” is subjective. “Everyone is so different that I’m most interested in changes. If something is sudden and dramatic, that warrants an evaluation.”
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