Exercise does our bodies (and minds) a ton of good. But let’s be real: A hardcore sweat session doesn’t always have the greatest effect on our skin. All that sweat means lingering bacteria, which makes breakouts and rashes more likely to pop up—especially if you’re not wearing the right gear.
So what’s a fitness devotee supposed to do? Follow this expert advice for beating the most common workout-related skin issues out there and hopefully you’ll never have to deal with a butt bump—yep, they’re a thing—again.
Skin SOS: Chest And Back Acne
What it looks like: Scattered red and pink bumps of various sizes.
What’s happening: All sorts of culprits can cause body acne, but often it’s a result of oil, sweat, and bacteria getting trapped in the pores, says Elyse Shelger, R.N., area medical lead for the skin-care center Skin Laundry. You’re especially prone to body breakouts if you don’t shower right after you work out. And even if you’re not hanging out in sweaty clothes post-workout, the skin-care products or fabrics you’re wearing, or even your sheets and towels, could be irritating your skin.
What to do: When you work out, wear materials that are breathable and moisture-wicking (like bamboo, cotton, GORE-TEX, and Spandex), and toss ‘em in the laundry ASAP post-sweat. Then, properly cleanse your skin as soon as possible with a soap or wash that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide—both of which exfoliate, unclog pores, and fight acne.
Skin SOS: Face Breakouts
What they look like: Surface-level whiteheads, deep blackheads, small red bumps, or deep (and often painful) cystic pimples.
What’s happening: Like with your back and chest, when the pores on your face get clogged with oil, dirt, and bacteria, pink, inflamed bumps or pustules can pop up, says Julia Tzu, M.D., founder and medical director of Wall Street Dermatology.
What to do: First thing’s first: “Try not to wear makeup while working out, as the sweat and makeup can remain in your pores and lead to pimples,” says Shelger. Then, “Sanitize your yoga mats, wash any gym or yoga towels, and try not to touch your face after your hands have been in contact with dirty surfaces.” And—no ifs, ands, or buts—wash your face with a noncomedogenic (‘non-pore-clogging’) skin-care product as soon as you’re done working out, says Tzu. Micellar cleansing water or facial wipes can come in handy if you’re in a real time crunch.
Skin SOS: Chafing
What it looks like: Red, irritated skin that can be painful when exposed to the elements (including your shower).
What’s happening: Chafing simply indicates that a sensitive area of your body—usually your underarms, nipples, thighs, or the skin beneath tight sports bra or waist bands—has fallen victim to friction. Whether from your skin rubbing against itself or against irritating clothing, too much friction can lead to redness, bumps, and that awful stinging, says Shelger.
What to do: The best way to deal with chafing is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Before you sweat, apply petroleum jelly or chamois cream to spots that are prone to irritation, and avoid wearing textured clothing. If you do develop chafing, it’s important to keep the area clean and dry to prevent further irritation, Shelger says. Apply petroleum jelly regularly to help speed up the healing process.
Skin SOS: Athlete’s Foot
What it looks like: A dry, scaly rash that’s often accompanied by super-fun symptoms like itching, burning, stinging, and redness.
What’s happening: “Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungal infection,” says Shelger. “Like other fungi, it lives and grows best in damp environments. Wearing damp socks or shoes is the most common cause, but since it’s contagious, it can also be spread by walking barefoot in gyms, locker rooms, showers, and spas.”
What to do: Antifungal creams and powders are your best bet here, says Tzu. You can grab an over-the-counter tube at your local drugstore, but if the rash gets worse, you may need to see a doctor for a prescription-strength treatment. At home, you can also try soaking your feet in diluted vinegar, which creates an acidic environment that wards off bacteria. Fill a foot tub or bucket with one part water and one part vinegar, and soak your feet for up to 10 minutes a day until your skin clears up, she suggests.
To avoid getting the rash in the first place, never share shoes or walk barefoot on mats and floors, and remove sweaty socks as soon as your workout is over so your feet can breathe, suggests Shelger.
Skin SOS: Heat Rash
What it looks like: A red, inflamed rash or tiny pink blisters.
What’s happening: Typically, heat rash happens when heat and humidity block our sweat ducts, causing them to swell, says Shelger. It’s most common in areas where the skin folds (which are harder to keep dry), or where clothing creates friction.
What to do: If you already have those tiny heat rash bumps, all you can really do is keep the area clean to prevent further irritation. “Heat rash is usually self-resolving, requiring no treatment,” Shelger explains. But if you’re dealing with any uncomfortable symptoms—like itchiness, pain, or redness—a topical OTC steroid like cortisone cream may help, says Tzu.
Skin SOS: Butt Bumps
What they look like: Clusters of inflamed bumps on the buttocks that resemble pimples or terrible razor burn. They’re often itchy and can become crusty and sore-like in more serious cases.
What’s happening: Say hello to folliculitis, a.k.a. irritated hair follicles on your booty that are likely wigging out because of sweat, dirt, or bacteria clogging your pores. This can be caused by tight pants that cause friction and prevent your skin from breathing, or hanging out in sweaty workout gear for too long, says Shelger. Your backside is one of the most common spots for folliculitis, but it’s not the only place the bumps can pop up; any spot that’s cut off from oxygen and sitting in sweat and bacteria can fall victim.
What to do: Use a gentle benzoyl peroxide skin cleanser to help banish the bumps, suggests Tzu. Otherwise, make sure you’re wearing loose, 100-percent cotton undies when you work out (or consider going commando), and change out of damp clothes as soon as you’re finished.