It’s no secret working out has some major benefits beyond just improving your overall physique. Exercise can also help you sleep better, reduce stress, and boost your overall mood thanks to feel-good endorphins.
Unfortunately, as great as all that is, there are some downsides to working out, specifically when it comes to your skin. From bacne to dry skin to chafing, your skin can take a hard hit when you’re active. Luckily, we tapped Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical in New York City, to share her quick, easy, and affordable solutions to your workout skin issues.
Problem: Body Acne
It’s bad enough you have to deal with the occasional zit on your face. But when one (or a cluster) pop up on your chest or back too? That’s straight savage. To attack the problem properly, it’s important to understand why it’s happening in the first place. Acne occurs when dead skin cells, dirt, and/or sebum (oil) get trapped in an oxygen-free environment (the pore) and create bacteria that multiples quickly, causing inflammation (redness and swelling), Levin explains.
So what’s the deal with your back and chest? Those areas have a higher concentration of pores and sebaceous glands, she says, making them prime places for acne to develop. On top of that, factors such as increased sweating, irritation from clothing, and repetitive rubbing can clog pores, making body breakouts common for exercisers. Woof.
“Acne does not occur overnight, which is why it’s important to pick treatments that address all the causes—unclogging pores, decreasing inflammation, decreasing oil production, and fighting bacteria,” Levin says.
The No. 1 way to fight acne before it starts is to shower immediately after exercising to cleanse the area. You can also use a topical product to tame zits. There are a few key ingredients she recommends. The first is a retinoid, which is anti-inflammatory, helps clear pores, and normalizes skin cell turnover. Typically retinoids are prescription only, but Levin recommends Differin gel ($12.20, amazon.com), which can be bought over the counter. Another key ingredient is salicylic acid, which breaks up dead skin cells to clear clogged pores. Try a sal-acid cleanser like PCA Skin blemish control bar ($36, amazon.com) or La Roche-Posay Effaclar medicated gel cleanser ($14.99, amazon.com)
Real talk: A shower isn’t always a reality after a workout. In that case, Levin recommends wiping the chest and back area with a cleansing cloth like Cetaphil gentle skin cleansing cloths, ($9.99, amazon.com) to remove excess sweat and dirt.
Problem: Forehead Breakouts
Acne strikes again. “Often times, I do see a worsening of acne in my patients who work out regularly,” Levin says. The forehead is particular problem area, especially for people who use hair products or wear hats, helmets, or headbands when they work out. Breakouts from headwear are caused by friction and called acne mechanica. “The rubbing stimulates sebaceous glands to produce excess oils,” Levin explains.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid this is to forgo the hat or headband if you can. However, for cyclists, helmets are necessary. So one way to prevent breakouts is to clean skin and remove makeup before working out to avoid extra buildup. Also, wiping your face with a cleansing cloth like Cetaphil’s (above) immediately after will help the same way it does for body acne.
Problem: Dry Skin
On the other end of the oil spectrum, dry skin can also plague exercisers. People who work out regularly often shower more frequently. You may be thinking that showering a lot is good, right? Well, not necessarily. “Frequent and prolonged showers with hot water dry out the skin by stripping away the natural hydrating oils and proteins,” Levin explains. Swimmers can also experience this type of dryness from pools loaded with chlorine.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to forgo showers to keep your skin from getting dry. Levin recommends shortening showers to 10 minutes or less and using cool or warm water. Also, a moisturizing body wash can go a long way. We like Aveeno Daily Moisturizing body wash, ($6.64, amazon.com). You can also apply a moisturizer two to three minutes after you step out of the shower or pool to help minimize trans-epidermal water loss (TWL, or when you lose moisture through the skin). This will keep the barrier function in place and keep moisture levels balanced.
Problem: Sun Damage
Outdoor enthusiasts—think: runners, bikers, or hikers—can suffer from premature aging due to the free-radical damage from UV rays. “Prolonged time outdoors with exposure to UV radiation ages the skin by breaking down collagen and elastin,” Levin says. The result: fine lines and wrinkles.
The fix for this one is simple—sunscreen. Make sure to get a broad-spectrum sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or more. Then reapply every two hours to protect your skin from sun damage and sun-related skin cancers. A favorite affordable sunscreen of ours is Coppertone Sport sunscreen lotion SPF 30 ($12.99, amazon.com).
Those red, angry spots you get when your skin gets rubbed the wrong way can make any workout feel not worth it. “Friction with increased activity is more common in the summer, and therefore the skin is more vulnerable to chafing.” Whether it’s two body parts rubbing together (helloo, inner thighs!) or clothing, there’s actually a pretty easy fix to this painful problem.
“One of the most important aspects of avoiding chafing is keeping the skin cool and dry,” Levin explains. “I recommend avoiding staying in wet or moist clothing for prolonged periods of time, and wearing breathable fabrics.” By breathable fabrics, she means moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics such as Lycra or spandex. Skip cotton; it’s a big no-no since it will soak up moisture and stay wet longer. Opt for clothes that are loose so there’s less room for rubbing. Finally, if chafing is unavoidable (as it can be when training for a big event like a half-marathon), pick up a skin lubricant. We love Chamois Butt’r Original and Her ($17.97 each, amazon.com) or Bodyglide anti-chafe balm ($9.99, amazon.com).
Rosacea is a skin condition that results in red, inflamed, irritated skin. Although it’s not caused by working out, exercise can dilate blood vessels, which can trigger or worsen rosacea for people who already suffer from the inflammatory disorder. As for melasma (a chronic pigmentary condition), Levin explains that heat can worsen it.
Most people with rosacea or melasma keep up with regular dermatology visits and prescriptions to help the issue. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do anything to help when working out. “I recommend to my rosacea [and melasma] patients that they keep a cool cloth by their treadmill to avoid swinging changes of temperature on the face,” Levin says. This immediate cool-down will keep the face from overheating and flushing, which will keep both rosacea and melasma flare-ups at bay.
Like rosacea, eczema isn’t caused by exercise, but sweat can exacerbate the issue, because the salt and moisture irritate the skin even more, making the rash not only visible, but also more uncomfortable.
Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. “Eczematous skin has a decreased amount of important proteins that lock in moisture and provide hydration such as ceramides,” Levin says. To restore the protective barrier that keeps skin supple and hydrated, slather on a fragrance-free moisturizer post-shower. Look for hydrating ingredients such as glycerin, ceramides, or hyaluronic acid. Levin suggests CeraVe moisturizing cream ($10.42, amazon.com).