When I began doing research on this topic, I was sure the results would be that working out was always great for your skin. Somehow, in my brain, a good sweat session was always followed by flushed, rosy cheeks and glowing skin. That’s not always the case.
The benefits of working out, however, far exceed the skin problems that can occur. Exercise not only improves your overall health and well-being, it also keeps your skin clear and firm. Working out increases blood circulation, which brings new nutrients to the cells and oxygen to the skin. So it definitely is helpful for getting a glow. According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, working out also reduces cortisol, which can lessen stress-related breakouts.
We spoke to the experts to find out all the ways exercise affects your skin—the good, the bad, and the ugly. From redness and melasma to bacteria and dryness, we lay out all the issues (and subsequent solutions) you should take into account before, during, and after a workout.
Meet the Expert
- Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician and trusted skincare expert who has worked with Demi Lovato, Lili Reinhart, and Madelaine Petsch. She is the founder of Renée Rouleau Skin Care.
- Peterson Pierre, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist who is widely respected in the field of dermatology and cosmetic dermatology at the Pierre Skin Care Institute in Thousand Oaks, CA. He was trained in dermatology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
How Does Exercise Help Your Skin
In case you needed more incentive to get in a good sweat session, here are five ways that exercise improves your skin.
Exercise Improves Oxygen Flow to Your Skin
You know that rosy flush you get after exercise? That is a sign that your skin is being infused with oxygen and nutrients.
“Exercise can be very beneficial to your skin and overall health by increasing blood flow,” says Pierre. “This not only improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the skin, but will also accelerate the removal of waste products and free radicals, thereby protecting the skin from further damage.”
Another benefit of that rosy flush? You can skip the blush and let your natural beauty shine through!
Exercise Can Improve Collagen Production
The importance of collagen in keeping our skin firm and healthy has been recognized the last few years. In fact, it is hard to scroll through your Instagram feed without seeing a celebrity touting the benefits of a collagen drink or a skincare product that has collagen in it.
As it turns out, research has shown that you can stimulate your own collagen production through exercise.
Pierre says that the increased blood flow from exercise “can stimulate collagen production and improve cellular turnover for a healthy, glowing complexion.”
Exercise Reduces the Signs of Aging
You don’t want to completely eliminate your smile lines and crows feet. After all, those are hard-earned signs that you have lived a happy life. However, exercise can keep your skin looking smoother….no Botox needed!
“With an improved delivery of oxygen and nutrients, coupled with an efficient removal of waste products and free radicals, exercise can improve the signs of aging by increasing cellular turnover and collagen production,” says Pierre. “Don't expect it to eliminate your wrinkles, but the quality and appearance of your skin will be noticeably better.”
HIIT Exercise Promotes Cell Growth
“Any type of exercise will prove beneficial for your skin. However, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and endurance exercise have been shown to have an anti-aging effect by increasing telomerase activity, an enzyme responsible for protecting our DNA leading to better cell growth and replication,” explains Pierre.
Not a fan of HIIT? Not to worry. Research has shown that even regular moderate exercise increases your body’s production of antioxidants.
Exercise May Prevent Acne
Rouleau says that exercise can help prevent pimples and breakouts as it reduces stress, which contributes to acne. There are studies that back her up, showing that exercise does improve your mood and help reduce anxiety.
Be aware, however, that exercise can cause acne if you aren't washing your skin after working out.
Can Exercise Harm Your Skin?
Although no one can deny the benefits of exercise, it can also affect your skin negatively if you don’t know how to properly care for it. For example, those who have rosacea, which is a common skin condition that causes redness and bumps, may need to take special precautions as working out could be a trigger for it. “Exercise cannot cause rosacea,” explains Pierre. “If you have rosacea, the flushing and blushing as well as the pimples can be aggravated temporarily by exercise.”
Working out can also cause acne, pimples and papules on your skin. “Sweat glands (also known as sudoriferous glands), are located in the epidermis and produce moisture (sweat) that is secreted through tiny ducts onto the surface of your skin," says Rouleau.
She continues, "There are two types of sweat glands: apocrine glands and eccrine glands. The latter are found over the entire body, including your face. They regulate body temperature by bringing water via your pores to the surface of the skin where it evaporates and reduces skin temperature. Sweat can, in fact, create an occlusion of the pores, resulting in red bumps caused by a combination of sweat and oil. This can create clogged pores, which aren't so much like big blemishes but rather more of a cluster of red, rash-like bumps.”
Exercising outdoors can also lead to skin issues to be aware of. “Exercise can certainly worsen heat sensitivity in susceptible individuals,” says Pierre. In addition, exercising outside in the sun can cause premature aging, sunburn and skin cancer. Make sure you are wearing sunblock and protective clothing. Avoid exercising between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the suns’ rays are the most intense.
It is interesting to note that sun spots are stimulated by heat as much as the sun's UV rays. "For years, brown sun spots were thought to be solely from the sun," notes Rouleau. "We now know heat will also stimulate melanin activity."
"If you're someone prone to pigmentation, an important goal is to keep the temperature of the skin as cool as possible," explains Rouleau. "Hot yoga is a very obvious example of placing yourself in extreme heat, but don't forget activities like sitting in the sauna or going for a run can do the same."
How To Care For Skin Post Workout
If you take care of your skin after you exercise, you enjoy the benefits of that workout session without the potential negative effects to your skin.
"Due to the increase of blood circulation, your exercise routine can cause wear and tear on fragile capillaries for those with redness-prone skin (like those with rosacea)," Rouleau explains.
To remedy, apply a calming, milky serum to your skin post-workout. We're really into Dr. Barbara Sturm's Calming Serum because the plant-based blend rebalances an irritated complexion and strengthens your skin's natural defenses. It's unbelievably gentle but also improves sensitivity over time.
Acne, Bumps and Papules
Rouleau says if you are prone to acne, bumps or papules, then you should make sure you are washing your skin thoroughly as well as using a glycolic acid or salicylic acid serum to keep pores clear.
"It's actually more important to wash your skin after than before working out because oils, bacteria, and sweat have accumulated on the skin," advises Rouleau. "But if you are wearing a heavy foundation, it's good to wash your skin pre-workout with a mild, non-drying cleanser, followed by an alcohol-free toner and a lightweight, oil-free lotion."
In fact, for acne-prone skin types, "headbands, hats, or bandanas are not doing you any favors," says Rouleau. "They can cause a backup of oil and perspiration in your pores. Try to keep your headband or bandana further back in your hairline instead of directly across your forehead."
Brown Spots and Melasma
Rouleau says you can prevent brown spots by keeping the type of exercise in mind. For example, choose a standard yoga class over hot yoga. Cool your skin down after exercising as well.
“A quick way to cool down the skin post-workout to decrease the melanin activity is to keep a tube of a gel mask like the Bio Calm Repair Masque in the refrigerator and apply to clean skin,” says Rouleau. “Leave on 15 minutes, and apply moisturizer. Gels naturally have a cooler temperature, but when kept in the fridge, [they] will be extra cold and will instantly reduce the skin temperature to keep it calm and to settle down melanin activity."
Dry and Dehydrated Skin
"When you exercise, your skin loses water due to evaporation, leaving it dehydrated," says Rouleau. "Dehydrated skin increases surface lines and causes skin cells to die prematurely, leading to premature aging and the potential for pores to clog. Using a lightweight moisturizer will help to retain the water in the skin."
According to Rouleau, "moisture acts like a magnet in that it attracts other moisture and will always go to the driest area. So misting your skin will make the moisture within your skin evaporate out, leaving it tight, dry, and dehydrated."
Since you lose so much water from perspiration, it is crucial that you replace it by drinking plenty of fluids before, during, and after workouts. "However," Rouleau continues, "from a skincare standpoint, research concludes that drinking water is the least efficient way to hydrate the skin." Skin hydration levels have much more to do with what you are using topically. A product like Skin Drink ($45) post-workout helps to hydrate the skin very well.