Along with the hot summer months comes the inevitable skin chafing (you've got all the swimming and sweating to thank for that). But anyone who's ever experienced this painful rubbing can tell you, it isn't only limited to the summertime—it's a year-round kinda thing.
According to LA-based dermatologist Jessica Wu, MD, author of Feed Your Face, areas that rub against other skin or against clothing are most prone to chafing, such as under your bra straps, the backs of your heels, under your breasts, and areas covered by face masks, to name a few. Dermatologist Annie Chiu, MD, founder of The Derm Institute, adds that chafing is caused by moisture, irritating or rough fabrics, and prolonged rubbing. "Symptoms are stinging or itching and a red rash," Chiu notes. "If you scratch a chafed area, you could experience bleeding or crusting, and rarely, chafing can cause swelling in the area." Ouch. And what makes it even more painful? The places it tends to pop up. "Chafing is most common on the thighs, underarms, nipples, and groin," notes dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, of Modern Dermatology in Westport, CT.
What's more, dermatologist Wendy Roberts, MD, founder of Generational Dermatology Symposium, says a non-optimal skin barrier can even lead to chafing, so while some causes of chafed skin are unavoidable (like clothing), there are things you can do to keep your skin barrier replenished and protected to help prevent it. Ahead, the dermatologists share their expert insight for not only how to prevent chafing but also how to treat the pesky symptoms. Keep scrolling for all the tricks, DIY solutions, recommended products, and in-office options to prevent and treat chafing.
Meet the Expert
- Annie Chiu, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of The Derm Institute.
- Jessica Wu, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the author of Feed Your Face.
- Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD, is a Westport, CT-based, board-certified dermatologist.
- Wendy Roberts, MD, is a dermatologist and the founder of Generational Dermatology Symposium.
Switch to Moisture-Wicking Fabrics
As we mentioned, moisture and sweat are key contributors to the irritation that comes along with chafing, and Robinson adds that it usually results from repetitive movements during exercise, for instance, your inner thighs rubbing while you run. In other words, sweat plus rubbing from running equals major chafe.
"Staying dry is key, so dressing in breathable, moisture-wicking materials and changing out of sweaty or wet clothes as soon as possible after a workout are important," Robinson says. "For chafing from everyday movements, be sure your clothing fits properly. Too much fabric can move around and cause friction, while something too tight can irritate in specific areas, like the underarm, for example."
Chiu also recommends seeking out seamless clothing to help reduce friction. And while we're on the topic of things to avoid, add cotton fabrics, which absorb moisture, to the list. Opt for technical fabrics that'll keep you cool and dry instead.
Protect Your Skin With an Anti-Chafe Balm
"Once you eliminate clothing or other externals that could be causing chafing, these areas are generally treated the same way—with a product that can eliminate friction," Chiu says, adding that it's still important to read the label and only use a product as directed. One way to reduce that friction is with a formula specifically designed with chafe in mind, aka an anti-chafe balm. Wu recommends this one because it "contains waxes to help protect the skin and provide a barrier to friction." And as a nice bonus, it's small enough to carry around, as well as easy to use if you need to reapply throughout the day.
Or, Try Rolling on Deodorant to Prevent Chafing
Using deodorant as a protective barrier on areas of the body that are prone to chafing, like your inner thighs, is an Internet-favorite hack—and it's also one that Chiu and Roberts can get behind. Roberts is careful to point out that a solid deodorant would be better for this purpose than a spray form. As Roberts explains it, a wax stick deodorant also has emollient ingredients, which are helpful for protecting the skin.
Apply a Barrier Cream or Gel to Areas Prone to Chafing
Roberts and Robinson say one way to prevent the chafe is by giving your skin an extra layer of protection with help from a barrier cream. As Robinson explains, "Using a barrier cream or gel in specific areas prone to irritation can also help so that the skin glides over top versus rubbing." As far as specific ingredients to help form a protective barrier on the skin, Robinson suggests waxes, lanolin, zinc oxide, and petrolatum, and Roberts also adds dimethicone to that list. This cult-favorite and dermatologist-favorite ointment (it's a top pick from both Chiu and Robinson), relies on the emollient ingredient petrolatum to do the trick.
Although creating a barrier on your skin can be great for avoiding chafe, it can be problematic for those who have acne. "If you have acne, the barrier cream isn’t great because you don’t want your follicles covered," Roberts explains. The fix, Roberts says, is to use the barrier cream when you have to wear your mask, but when you get home, cleanse your face and apply nothing at night. "The hair follicle has an exfoliation cycle, so when you put a barrier cream on, you’re stopping the exfoliation cycle, the natural cycle of how we remove the dirt and sebum from our skin. When you clean everything off your skin, and you can give it 10 to 12 hours, it has its chance to do what it does, which is self-exfoliation."
Additionally, Robinson says if someone has a flare-up on acne-prone skin, treat it with a non-comedogenic barrier cream, like this ointment from Vanicream that contains wax and dimethicone.
If You Experience Chafe From Protective Face Coverings, Try Using a Primer
If the chafing falls more on your face, Wu has a trick for that, too. "Below the face, you can use thicker, waxier products (such as an anti-chafe balm), but these may clog your pores and cause breakouts if you use them on your face," Wu says. Instead, she recommends applying a primer to the area before putting on your mask to prevent flaking on your nose, chin, and jawline. We suggest trying this lightweight makeup primer that has the added benefit of oil control.
Apply a Blister Bandage or Primer to Prevent Mask Chafe
We touched on barrier creams, but other barriers, like bandages, would also work to prevent irritation caused by a face mask. "If you have chafing above your ears caused by earloops from your mask, cut a strip from a blister Band-Aid and put it on the crease above your ears," Wu says.
Apply Aloe to Soothe Skin
If you've already got chafe and you're looking to treat it, Chiu, Roberts, and Robinson all recommend aloe vera to soothe the itchiness and irritation as well as cool, moisturize, and hydrate the area. When shopping for a product, Roberts says to check the ingredients list and look for a pure aloe vera formula. We recommend trying this one, which contains 99.75% pure cold-pressed aloe vera.
Use a Dusting Powder to Keep the Area Dry
One key ingredient that both Chiu and Wu say to look for to prevent friction that leads to chafing? Cornstarch.
"If you’ve been working out more and now have chafing from a sports bra or leggings, it’s best to keep the area clean and dry," explains Wu. "Wet skin is more likely to chafe, so towel off frequently, or try using powder under your bra straps." Wu recommends sprinkling this natural, talc-free dusting powder on the places that rub together to dry out the area and reduce moisture that causes friction.
Chiu also adds that airing out the area is key to promote dryness. If you can't change outfits or you need a quick fix, Roberts's favorite trick is to use a quick blast of cool air from a blow dryer to remove the moisture. "Cooling constricts blood vessels, decreases circulation, cools off the skin itself, and also removes the moisture," Roberts explains.
See Your Dermatologist About Botox For Chafing (or Other In-Office Treatments)
If you have signs of infection, like oozing, heat, streaking, and severe discomfort, a visit to your doctor is imperative, but that's not the only time you can (or should) see your dermatologist to discuss your chafing. A dermatologist can offer anything from a medical-grade dressing to prevent infection and promote healing, to prescriptions that help with yeast or fungal overgrowth that can come with chafe, to a healthy skincare routine to support the skin barrier function, and even offer preventative treatments.
"Since sweat and moisture contribute to chafe, in moderate-to-severe cases, we can actually use Botox or a similar neuromodulator to reduce the activity of the sweat glands in that specific area," Chiu says. "This is particularly effective for the armpits or under the breasts. The results last six to nine months, typically, and can be life-changing for those who constantly sweating ruins clothing or is a source of chronic chafe."