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How your workout can affect your skin

Photo for an AAD article about how workout can affect your skin
Working out affects skin in good and not-so-good ways. Here is how to protect it while getting fit.

Working out regularly can help maintain your weight, boost your overall mood and self-esteem, motivate you to eat healthier, and do wonders for your skin. However, not taking the right precautions while working out can cause acne to flare, skin infections, and other skin issues. As much as we benefit from those feel-good endorphins, all of that sweat can clog our pores, cause breakouts, chafing, and more. Your best form of defense is understanding the good, along with the bad, so you can prepare and protect your skin.

Here, we spoke with leading board-certified dermatologists on what to do before and after your workout to prevent unwanted issues.

Get that glow

Once you have cooled down and chugged some water after exercise, you likely noticed your radiant, flushed skin. There’s a reason why so many fitness enthusiasts rave about this feeling, and why many cosmetic companies try to replicate it: it’s naturally attractive.

Board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in Chicago, Edidiong Kaminska, MD, FAAD, says this allure is created by an increase of blood flow to all organs, including our largest one, the skin. "This provides oxygen and nutrients to the skin cells and clears impurities from the skin, creating a post-workout glow," she says.

Another way fitness improves our skin’s appearance is through stress management and sleep regulation. Because burning calories also burns off anxiety, it can decrease the likelihood or severity of skin conditions like acne, eczema, or psoriasis, since stress can play a role in those conditions. And when you stick to a manageable workout schedule, you tend to sleep better. Plus, with more hours of shut eye, those pesky dark eye circles are less common too, Dr. Kaminska adds.

The downside of sweat

If you’re in a challenging boot camp or a hot vinyasa yoga class, it feels like sweat is coming from everywhere. And that’s because it is! While sweating is a healthy way to release build-up and impurities, it can also clog up your pores, causing breakouts and other skin issues on your face and throughout your body, especially if you are wearing heavy makeup or other acne-causing products.

Dr. Kaminska also says excessive sweating can lead to seborrheic dermatitis, or dandruff, especially if you’re already prone to this condition. This is because dandruff is caused by a yeast that lives on our skin (and thrives in warm, moist environments), and when it overgrows, it begins to flake or itch.

And if you’re someone who likes to hit the ground running—literally—you could experience chafing. Though relatively harmless and short-lasting, Dr. Kaminska says it can become painful, especially as your thighs rub together, creating friction.

Protect your skin during a workout

You shouldn’t skip your favorite fitness class or routine because you’re worried about skin-related issues. Instead, Dr. Kaminska says, there are some proactive, preventive measures you can take before you lace up your sneakers. These include:

  • Skip makeup. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the swipe of foundation you applied in the morning when you’re scrambling to squeeze in an hour of workout time before relaxing at the end of the day. It may not seem like a big deal, but Dr. Kaminska says sweat mixed in with makeup is much more damaging to skin, because your pores are "clogged" before the workout even begins. It’s better to wash your face with a gentle cleanser before picking up a dumbbell.

  • Never skip sun protection. Any time you work up a sweat outdoors, it’s essential to protect your skin from the sun by staying in the shade whenever possible and wearing sun-protective clothing. Many fitness apparel brands make hats, sunglasses, and clothing that are not only comfortable to wear while active, but also provide UV protection. Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to all skin not covered by clothing. Choose a sunscreen that says "non-comedogenic" or "won’t clog pores" on the label. Not only does it prevent skin cancer, but it will help your appearance remain more youthful for longer. And don’t forget, if you’re enjoying a long fitness session—like marathon training—you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating.

    To further protect your skin from the elements, if working out in the cold makes your skin chapped and windburned, consider applying some moisturizer or petroleum jelly before heading outside. Don’t skip sun protection if taking this step, however.

  • Choose the right fabrics. The next time you’re updating your workout wardrobe, look for synthetic fabrics like nylon or polyester or garments that say "moisture-wicking" on the label. These materials "wick" sweat away from your skin and dry quickly, which help prevent clogged pores and even cool down your overall body temperature. Make sure your workout clothes fit loosely, because tight clothing or accessories can rub against and irritate your skin.

  • Get fitted for the right shoes. While everyone has a shoe size, athletic sneakers are not one-size-fits-all, because feet are unique to each person. This is why Dr. Kaminska suggests being fitted at a running or athletic store. Having shoes that fit well reduces blisters and injuries alike. Other ways to prevent blisters while working out include wearing nylon or moisture-wicking socks and if needed, applying soft bandages as extra protection to areas on your feet, like your heels, that are prone to blistering.

  • Stay clean. Avoid contact with equipment or towels that aren’t clean. Use a clean towel to gently pat sweat from your skin while working out, and make sure to disinfect shared equipment before and after use to avoid spreading germs. When possible, use your own equipment, like a yoga mat, to avoid sharing germs.

How to protect your skin after a workout

You mustered up the energy, you put in the work, and now it’s time for the reward. Before you treat yourself to a high-protein snack or begin your binge-watching of the evening, Dr. Kaminska says to give your skin a little post-workout TLC by hopping in the shower. "This clears the skin of sweat, oils, and bacteria, and helps to keep pores clean," she continues.

"If you cannot shower, at least wash your face with a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser or wipe skin that tends to break out with pads containing salicylic acid." Change into clean clothing, too.

And one more thing: Do not go barefoot in the shower or the locker room at a gym. Public locker rooms are high-traffic areas, and may not be cleaned as well or as often as they should be, so you run the risk of skin infections like fungus or warts. A travel pair of flip-flops is enough to keep you safe.

The lowdown on post-workout products

You’ve done your cool-down and some stretching and now it’s time to clean up. With so many products available, how do you know you are choosing the right one for use post-workout? We asked board-certified dermatologist Farah Moustafa, MD, FAAD, director of lasers and cosmetics and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, to share specific ingredients in cleansers and more:

  • Cleanser. Go for a wash with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, which help clean your pores and fight bacteria. Because salicylic acid is oil-soluble, it can penetrate effectively into our pores and provide deep exfoliation as well as prevention of excess oil production. This helps treat whiteheads, blackheads, and other inflammatory acne, she explains. Benzoyl peroxide wash kills the bacteria that causes acne and can also help reduce body odor after a workout (also caused by bacteria). Benzoyl peroxide can sometimes be irritating for people with sensitive skin, so approach it with caution, and avoid using it at the same time as products with other drying ingredients, like salicylic acid. If you don’t have any cleanser nearby, lukewarm water alone will go a long way to help prevent breakouts, Dr. Moustafa says.

  • Deodorant/antiperspirant. While antiperspirants reduce sweating and odor, deodorants mask the scent. When shopping for these, check if it has “aluminum chloride,” which Dr. Moustafa says blocks our sweat ducts, cutting back on the amount of sweat. Higher concentrations are more effective and are often labeled as “clinical strength.” She recommends applying deodorant after your shower on dry skin and then again before the workout for the best effectiveness.

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Last updated: 5/27/21