Working out is great for your bod—but it can really do a number on your skin. From uncomfortable chafing to back breakouts, chances are you’ve dealt with your share. While some sweat-related skin conditions are just annoying, others can be more serious—like herpes or staph infections. Not good.
Here, find out what causes some of the most common gym-related skin conditions, and how to prevent and treat them.
When you feel super itchy mid-run, you might be breaking out in a heat rash (don’t worry too much, though—it’s irritating, but it’s common). “This pink, bumpy rash can develop on the neck and body when working out in a super-hot environment, whether it’s outdoors or in a spin class without air conditioning,” says Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of Southern California. How exactly does heat rash happen? Your hair follicles become inflamed by sweat that gets trapped beneath them, explains board-certified dermatologist Esta Kronberg, M.D.
The fix: If you’re sprouting bumps, move to a cooler area and apply a cool compress (like a cold, wet washcloth) to relieve the irritation, says Shainhouse. “If the rash is very itchy and uncomfortable, apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream twice a day for a couple of days,” she adds. It’s also a good idea to skip the gym until the rash heals—sorry!
Bacne is a total pain in the you-know-what—and it can rear its ugly head after an intense training session. Body acne (which most commonly pops up on the chest, back, and butt), usually makes an appearance when you wear super-tight spandex gym clothes that aren’t breathable and lock in moisture, says Shainhouse. Why the breakouts? When you exercise, the glands in your body start secreting sweat—and then the sweat builds up in your hair follicles and clogs them, explains Kronberg.
The fix: Step one: Make sure you change out of your sweaty workout gear ASAP after you exercise, says Shainhouse. Then, shower right away and use an anti-bacterial body wash that contains benzoyl peroxide, suggests Kronberg. (Look for a cleanser with 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide—anything stronger may just cause further irritation.)
If an immediate shower isn’t in the cards, wipe down your acne-prone areas with a salicylic acid towelette, says Shainhouse. (Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that exfoliates dead skin cells that build up, clog pores, and cause zits.) Skincare products may contain anywhere from 0.5 to 2 percent salicylic acid. These 2 percent Clearasil Rapid Action Pads make for a strong acne-fighting option.
Many a gym goer is familiar with this pesky issue. “When skin rubs against itself or clothing, it can chafe, leaving it pink and sore,” says Shainhouse. Ouch! Chafing usually occurs around the armpits, inner thighs, and under sports bra straps and bands, says Shainhouse. But it can also happen around your ankles if your shoes aren’t snug enough!
The fix: Say goodbye to shirts, leggings, and sports bras that are too restricting. “Make sure that all clothing fits and that you don’t feel any rubbing during movements like swinging your arms,” says Shainhouse. You can also apply a thin layer of Vaseline or coconut oil before working out to reduce friction in those trouble zones, says Shainhouse. If you sweat a lot, she recommends applying an absorbent, like Zeasorb Super Absorbent Powder, to dry skin.
If you do experience chafing, you can use an OTC cortisone cream to ease irritation, says Kronberg. She also recommends slathering on a fragrance-free lotion to keep the area moist and to curb any further friction. (Fragrance may cause irritation, so it’s best to avoid scented moisturizers if your skin has chafed.)
It makes sense that you’d want to take your workout to the park when the weather is nice—but just be mindful of the sun! “Working out outdoors—including walking, running, swimming, or bike riding—leaves your skin vulnerable to damage by the sun’s UV rays,” says Shainhouse.
The fix: Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher 30 minutes before heading outside, says Kronberg. Look for a sunscreen that’s ‘non-comedogenic’ or that’s specially formulated for acne-prone facial skin. You’ll need to reapply every two hours—or more frequently if you swim or get sweaty, so keep the SPF handy.
If possible, try to avoid getting your sweat on outdoors during peak sun hours (11 A.M. through 3 P.M.), advises Shainhouse. And try to stay as covered up as possible—that means no shirtless runs, adds Kronberg. All fabrics offer some sun protection, and there are even special workout clothes (labeled ‘UPF’) that offer UV protection.
Sometimes even the most diligent of sunscreen users get a burn, though. Taking an OTC anti-inflammatory and applying emu oil or a one-percent cortisone lotion may help soothe the pain, says Kronberg. Wait, emu oil? Kronberg likes this out-of-the-ordinary oil for sunburn because it moisturizes the skin and contains omega-3 fatty acids, which support immune health. (A 2013 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that emu oil could be useful when dealing with itchy or irritated skin.)
So you forgot to put your flip flops in your gym bag—and now you have to shower sans sandals. Sounds like NBD, right? Er, not quite. “If you walk around the gym changing room, pool area, or showers barefoot, you may pick up fungus from other people’s feet,” says Shainhouse. Athlete’s foot is marked by dry white scales on the sides and bottom of your feet or mushy white skin between your toes, explains Shainhouse. “Once it gets into your toenails—leaving them thick, yellow, and crumbly—it can be harder to treat,” she says.
The fix: This one’s a no-brainer, but it’s worth repeating: Always wear flip flops around the locker room, says Kronberg. If you notice any of the symptoms we mentioned above, make an appointment with your derm. You’ll likely need to use a prescription anti-fungal cream twice a day for three weeks or so until the infection goes away, says Kronberg.
Yep, it’s possible to catch an STD at the gym, says Kronberg. More specifically, we’re talking about the herpes simplex one virus (HSV-1), which is transmitted orally and most often causes cold sores around the mouth. Think about it: If someone touches their cold sore and then puts their hands on a mat, then they’ve just transferred the germs, leaving you susceptible to coming into contact with them, says Kronberg.
The fix: We know this sounds freaky, but a few easy protective moves can reduce your risk. If you’re taking a yoga or Pilates class, consider bringing your own mat. If you have to rent a mat from the gym, or will be using other gym equipment or machines, wipe everything down with a disinfectant wipe before you get started. (Dispensers are pretty much all over the place in most gyms.)
Once you have HSV-1, it stays in your symptoms for the rest of your life. The good news is that prescription meds can knock out an outbreak pretty quickly, says Kronberg.
Thought only people in hospitals contracted staph infections? Not the case. “Staph bacteria lives on our skin and is easily transferred to shared gym equipment,” says Shainhouse. “If you have any open cuts or sores on your skin that come into contact with that bacteria, you can develop a localized staph infection, called an abscess or boil.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, these abscesses are often warm to the touch, full of pus, and accompanied by a fever. (And yep, it’s pretty much as unpleasant as it sounds.) Methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus (MRSA), a common type of staph infection that is resistant to some antibiotics, is one you should be especially aware of, says Kronberg. The infection often looks like a really bad spider bite, so people may not realize it’s actually a staph infection.
The fix: Preventing a staph infection isn’t complicated. Just cover up any open sores while you’re at the gym and be sure to wash your hands really well—preferably while showering after you work out, says Shainhouse. The thing is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when left untreated, MRSA can be deadly.
That’s why it’s critical to book it to your M.D. immediately if you think you might have MRSA, says Kronberg. In addition to starting a course of antibiotics to treat the infection, you may need to have any abscesses lanced by your doc if they don’t go away on their own, says Shainhouse.