Why Do I Have Red Spots on My Skin?

Your ultimate guide to kissing redness goodbye.

A woman with freckles on her face and back
(Image credit: Rochelle Brock / Refinery29 for Getty Images)

If you’re a living, breathing human, you’ve probably experienced the joys of discovering a mysterious red spot or bump on your skin at some point in your life (specifically, one that goes beyond hyperpigmentation). And as anyone who's seen a dermatologist—or anxiously self-diagnosed on the Internet—knows that there isn't always one clear-cut answer or universal fix.

To prevent you from attacking your skin with the wrong formulas, we chatted with leading dermatologists to find out the top seven most likely causes for red spots on your skin. Don't worry, these red spots, too, shall pass.

Cause #1: Acne

The first, and perhaps most obvious, cause of red spots on the skin is acne, which can occur on any part of the body but is most common on the face, chest, back, and buttocks.

"While acne has long been thought to affect only teenagers, we’re finding that adult women are breaking out more than ever, thanks to hormonal changes,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. He adds that when redness, it often comes in the form of angry red bumps around the mouth, jawline, chest, and back, including cystic acne and pus-filled whiteheads that have been irritated.

Cause #2: Cherry Angiomas

Cherry angiomas, which essentially look like red moles, are collections of small blood vessels that are usually found on your torso, arms, legs, and shoulders, especially if you're 30 or older. They are usually the size of any freckle you might have already on your body, but they can be bigger. They don't cause any itching or irritation, but they can bleed if scratched, rubbed too hard, or cut open. 

There's a plethora of online tutorials on how to diminish the appearance of these, but self-diagnosing and self-treating, especially via the internet, is never a good idea. Instead, see your dermatologist, who can treat cherry angiomas via laser treatment or electrodesiccation, which is an in-office preventative skin cancer treatment that involves scraping the skin's surface.

Cause #3: Keratosis Pilaris

As many as 40 percent of adults are affected by keratosis pilaris, which consists on tiny, hard  red bumps that usually appear on the backs of one's upper arms and thighs. They are caused by "a buildup of keratin in the hair follicle, forming rough, hard plugs that can look inflamed and red,” according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin.

Picking at keratosis pilaris only worsens and further inflames the condition. Instead, exfoliate the skin with a gentle product that won't further irritate it. 

Cause #4: Broken Capillaries

Broken capillaries are enlarged blood vessels just beneath the surface of your skin that usually look like bright, blood-red marks. In general, they are caused by either skin trauma—like squeezing a pimple with too much force—or by excessive dilation of the blood vessels from taking hot showers to drinking alcohol. They usually are in a branch-like pattern or sometimes even just in a singular bright red prick. Luckily, though, they don't cause any pain.

There are no at-home treatments clinically proven to diminish the appearance of broken capillaries, but your dermatologist can do so with a laser at their office.

Cause #5: Papular Eczema

Papular eczema is caused by a damaged skin barrier, which leads to inflammation and dry, red, itchy bumps on the body. It's typically worse during cold and dry weather (read: when your skin is already dry and irritated) and is more common on sensitive skin.

“Eczema appears in red, scaly bumps and patches almost anywhere on the body, but it's most common inside the elbows," says Dr. Zeichner. It's also common on the hands and face—and it itches.

“The itch can cause a huge urge to scratch, but scratching will only make the rash worse,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Luckily, some treatments do exist, such as prescription topical steroid creams, but until you can get to a dermatologist, be sure to avoid hot showers and to only use gentle cleansers.

“You can also try using a humidifier in your bedroom, which will prevent moisture loss from dry air,” Dr. Nazarian suggests.

Cause #6: Heat Rash

“After exposure to heat or sweat, the skin can break out into small, red bumps known as heat rash," explains Dr. Nazarian. “Heat rash is usually found in areas with lots of sweat glands, like the back or chest, though it can really occur anywhere.”

Personally, I tend to get heat rash on my thighs in the summertime. Coupled with razor burn, the result is a stinging, sometimes itchy skin. Heat rash often looks like a smattering of itchy spots, blisters, and red bumps.

If you're struggling with heat rash, Dr. Nazarian recommends cooling off and drying the area, then following up with a topical steroid cream.

Cause #7: Rosacea

“Rosacea is a condition that causes the skin to overly-react to triggers that don’t normally upset the skin, like spicy food, alcohol, hot beverages, stress, and the surrounding environment,” explains Dr. Zeichner.

People with rosacea will develop redness, red bumps, and sometimes tiny pimples on the face, along with the tendency to flush very easily. Burning and stinging is common, but—and this is a big distinction—rosacea doesn’t usually present with itching.

“The best way to treat rosacea is to keep the skin barrier in as good of shape as possible,” says Dr. Zeichner. This means opting for products that reduce irritation and actively protect your skin from the sun.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Joshua Zeichner
Dr. Joshua Zeichner

As the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Hospital's Department of Dermatology, Dr. Zeichner has a broad interest in medical and cosmetic dermatology as well as clinical research. His specialty is the treatment of acne, as well as the cosmetic rejuvenation of the aging face. Dr. Zeichner treats general skin conditions, including eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, and skin cancer. In addition, he is well-versed in the use of Botox and dermal fillers, as well as lasers and chemical peels.

Dr. Rachel Nazarian
Dr. Rachel Nazarian

Dr. Rachel Nazarian joins Schweiger Dermatology after years of practicing various aspects of dermatology, including cosmetic treatments, skin cancer, general dermatology and dermatologic surgery. Dr. Nazarian has written many published articles in medical journals as well as widely respected dermatology textbooks, such as Treatment of Skin Disease. Dr. Nazarian serves as a faculty member at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology, where she completed her dermatology residency. While completing her medical degree at Tulane University School of Medicine, Dr. Nazarian was awarded a grant from the Women’s Dermatology Society. Dr. Nazarian is a board certified dermatologist and Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Arash
Dr. Arash Akhavan

Arash Akhavan, MD, FAAD is a board certified dermatologist in practice on 60th Street in Midtown Manhattan for the last decade. Castle Connolly Top Doctor Award Winner 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014. Dr. Akhavan is also member of the faculty of The Mount Sinai Medical Center, where he is involved in the education of dermatology residents in their cosmetic and medical clinics. Dr. Akhavan’s particular areas of interest and expertise are in non-invasive and minimally invasive Cosmetic Procedures of the Face, Neck, and Body, as well as in the detection and management of skin cancer and skin lesions.

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, gabrielleulubay.medium.com. Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at @suburban.graffiti.art