There are countless benefits to working up a sweat during a workout, but sometimes, that very sweat can prompt a less ideal side effect — and that’s exercise-induced acne. “Sweat, heat, and rubbing [during exercise] can create the perfect storm on your face and cause pimples,” Dr. Snehal Amin, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of MDCS Dermatology, tells Bustle. While unpleasant, he says the condition is shockingly common — and easier to treat than one might think. “Exercise is actually great for your skin health, so long as you follow a good pre- and post-workout skin care routine,” he continues.
As for what actually triggers these breakouts? It depends on each individual, but generally speaking, it’s a combination of oil, dirt, and bacteria — which actually build up regardless of whether or not you’re exercising. “Dirt, oil, sebum, and sweat accumulate on our skin during the day, which is then made worse by exercise,” says Dr. Tracy Evans, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology. Thus, the solution for how to prevent breakouts from working out is all about doing proper skin care — on both your face and body — before, during, and after you exercise.
Ready to tackle exercise-induced acne? Read on for expert tips on how to keep those pesky breakouts at bay.
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1. Start With A Clean Face
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating exercise-induced acne — or any skin concern, for that matter — there is one universal rule to prepping your skin for exercise: Always start with a clean face, as any buildup of products or makeup will clog your pores. How you prep your face otherwise, however, depends on the time of day and the type of workouts you prefer. “If you’re exercising first thing in the morning, I would recommend cleansing before you work out and applying a very light moisturizer,” Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician of SkinLab, tells Bustle, adding that if you work out in the evening, you should remove all your makeup beforehand. A gentle cleanser is more than adequate for a pre-workout cleanse.
Amin concurs, and also suggests applying a lightweight gel moisturizer and/or hydrating serum after cleansing your face and before your workout begins. “They’re soothing, feel weightless, and won’t clog pores,” he says. This way, your complexion gets infused with a touch of moisture — and moisturized skin has been shown to minimize acne breakouts. And, if you’re exercising outdoors, be sure to apply SPF. “Always use sunscreen when outdoors,” says Amin, who recommends you stick to lightweight, oil-free options to help prevent breakouts.
2. Protect Skin From Sweat & Bacteria
Now that your skin is clean, make sure everything else it comes into contact with is, too. “Make sure anything you might be using during your workout, such as sweatbands [or towels], are clean and not touching your face,” says Ross, as anything previously used could introduce bacteria or fungus to the skin, leading to breakouts down the line. In fact, you might want to rethink the sweatband entirely if your skin is becoming irritated, adds Amin. “Sweatbands and hats can lead to irritation by rubbing and trapping sweat on your skin,” he explains. If such is the case for you, Amin asserts that you’re better off wearing your hair in a ponytail or bun to keep it out of your face.
If you’re prone to excessive sweating while working out and need something to wipe with, Amin recommends using lightweight microfiber towels in particular. These are great for exercise because they’re portable and dry especially quickly compared to other fabrics, which helps prevent bacteria from forming. On that note, Amin warns that bacteria on mats and other gym equipment are often an unexpected culprit in post-workout acne flares. “Protect yourself by wiping down gym equipment, and try using a towel between your skin and the surface,” he says.
3. Cleanse Your Skin & Change Clothes
Once you’ve finished your workout, wash your face and change out of your sweaty workout clothes as soon as possible. “Cleanse your skin immediately after [working out], and use any kind of general hydrating and protective ingredients,” Ross recommends, though he advises against using anything active, exfoliating, and/or harsh on the face for at least an hour. If you can’t get to a sink or shower immediately, however, Evans suggests keeping facial cleansing wipes on hand to clean your face, chest, and back once you’ve dried off, as these areas are especially prone to sweat-induced breakouts.
Your sweaty workout clothes — especially sweat-drenched items, such as sports bras — can also lead to acne if left on for too long. “Fungus and bacteria thrive in moist environments, such as on damp sweaty clothes,” Amin explains. So changing into a dry shirt — even temporarily, before you shower — will limit the time your skin is exposed to potential bacteria.
4. Use An Acne-Fighting Body Wash
It’s best to shower as soon after your exercise sesh as possible, says Amin, because it’s best to clean your pores while they're still open from your workout. When you’re doing so, he recommends using a body wash formulated with salicylic acid if you’re struggling with body acne. “It’s great for cutting through oil and dirt and cleansing post-workout,” he explains. He prefers these over exfoliating washes, which can be too harsh immediately after exercise when the skin is sensitive due to increased blood flow and open pores.
5. Let Your Skin Cool Down
Finally, be sure to spend time winding down after working out. “Yes, sweat and dirt can lead to breakouts, but breakouts can also be led on by stress and inflammation,” Ross explains. When you do intense exercise, such as cardio, boot camps, or hot yoga, the entire body is going through an inflammatory process which can then, in turn, lead to stress and inflammatory breakouts on the skin. One way to prevent this? Let your skin and body cool down after working out. “Have a seat in your car when you get done working out and for five minutes, put the air conditioning on, and allow the skin to calm down,” he suggests. Running straight to work or social functions after exercise without letting your skin calm down is a more common culprit of exercise-induced acne than one might expect, he says.
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