Exercise is great for your bod (duh), but making certain mistakes can cause you to break out, develop a rash, or worse. Here are the most common ways your fitness routine might mess with your skin—and how to deal.
Skin infections caused by dirty gym equipment
With so many people using the same exercise machines every day, germs and bacteria are easily spread. And that can lead to some nasty skin infections.
The fix: “Whenever possible, wipe down any gym equipment before you use it—even if you think someone already did so; and never, ever touch your face until your hands have been washed,” says Joel Schlessinger, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf advisor. “Touching the machine and then touching your face can transfer these bacteria, causing acne and even infection.”
Heat rash caused by working out in hot environments
Heat and humidity can cause sweat ducts to become blocked and swell, leading to a heat rash. “This condition, which often appears in the form of tiny pink or red dots that look similar to pimples, is most common around skin folds and areas where clothing causes friction,” says Schlessinger.
The fix: If you’re heading outdoors for a walk, run, or bike ride, stop and seek a shady place to rest every now and then—preferably somewhere that’s air conditioned. Wear breathable fabrics and rehydrate constantly with lots of water. “Apply a cool compress to any areas you think are infected with heat rash to help reduce some of the swelling and discomfort,” suggests Schlessinger.
Hyperpigmentation caused by exercising outdoors sans SPF
UV exposure can seriously damage your skin, leading to collagen breakdown (read: fine lines and hyperpigmentation—not to mention an increased risk of skin cancer).
The fix: “If you exercise outside, it’s very important to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed areas of the skin at least 30 minutes before heading out and reapply often,” says Schlessinger. “I recommend EltaMD UV Sport Water-Resistant Broad Spectrum SPF 50 because it won’t sweat off easily or sting if it gets in your eyes.”
Body acne caused by wearing tight fitness gear
Getting hot and heavy in an outfit that’s too tight can cause sweat and bacteria to become trapped inside your clothes. This irritates your skin and causes your body to break out. “Your sweat creates a warm, damp environment where acne bacteria can thrive,” says Schlessinger.
The fix: “The best way to prevent body acne is to shower immediately after you work out if you think your clothing is hugging too tightly,” says Schlessinger. He recommends using a benzoyl peroxide body wash like PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash 105 Benzoyl Peroxide. “Benzoyl peroxide works gently to remove excess oil, bacteria, dirt, and other impurities,” he says.
No shower at your facility? Change into fresh clothes and shower as soon as you get home. You can also try wearing looser, more breathable fabrics to minimize the amount of trapped sweat. If you do notice breakouts on your back or chest, target trouble spots with a salicylic acid treatment like Glytone Acne Treatment Spray. “It has a 360-degree spray nozzle that allows for easy application from any angle—perfect for those hard-to-reach areas like the back,” says Schlessinger.
Chafing caused by constant rubbing of skin
When your skin repeatedly rubs against clothing or other areas of skin, you’re sometimes left with red, raw patches that sting and burn.
The fix: “Working out in smooth, low-friction fabrics and avoiding loose-fitting clothes on sensitive areas that are usually in motion can make a world of a difference,” says Schlessinger.
If you do experience chafing, wash the area with lukewarm or cool water and some gentle soap and apply an antibiotic ointment, keeping it covered as it heals. Once you’re ready to get back at it, try using an anti-fungal powder, like Zeasorb Prevention Powder, to absorb excess moisture while you exercise.
Athlete’s foot caused by taking a shower barefoot
“The fungi that lead to athlete’s foot, a scaly rash that causes itching, stinging, and burning between the toes, can be found on the floor of many public shower stalls,” says Schlessinger. “You’re also at risk for contracting onychomycosis, a fungal infection that causes toenails to become thickened, brittle, and hardened with a yellow discoloration.” And quite possibly the worst foot-contaminating fact you’ve never thought of: Even the smallest of cuts on the bottom of your feet could allow the human papillomavirus (HPV) to sneak through and cause a painful plantar wart.
The fix: The best way to protect your feet if you shower at the gym is to always wear shower shoes—even while you’re changing in the locker room. “It’s also a good idea to clean your shower shoes with a disinfectant like bleach and replace them regularly,” says Schlessinger. And if you do find yourself with some kind of funk, head to your local pharmacy for OTC creams like cortisone, which can clear up most harmless infections.