We all know that exercise is good for us, including for our skin, as increased blood flow brings nourishing nutrients to your largest organ. However, workout-related breakouts are a real problem for many people. This is because increased sweat and dirt block the pores, which can cause the skin to react in the form of unwanted acne.
Breakouts are caused by pore-blocking sweat, dirt, and oils that encourage bacterial growth. Certain bacteria called propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) proliferate in blocked pores and cause an immune response that leads to pimples. Anywhere you sweat while working out is an area that can develop pimples (like the face, under your bra, or the lower back).
But don't let acne perturb you from reaping the endless benefits of exercise. By simply understanding the most common causes of workout-related acne and ways to avoid those causes, you can enjoy your workouts acne-free.
To get to the bottom of exactly what causes workout-related breakouts and how to avoid them, we spoke to two dermatologists, Dr. Jeannette Graf and Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali.
Remove Your Makeup and Start With a Clean Face
Washing your face before you workout can get rid of bacteria and dirt that are already on your skin; since exercise opens your pores, these breakout exacerbators will enter them more easily.
Removing your makeup is vital as well since makeup and even face creams or sunscreen can block your pores and become trapped, increasing bacterial growth.
"The combination of makeup and sweat will clog pores and can potentially cause breakouts. Carry small astringent pads with you such as witch hazel wipes to periodically wipe off the sweat and oil during your workout to prevent oil clogging," says Dr. Graf.
To reduce the amount of sweat and bacteria that find their way onto your skin, consider wearing a clean, breathable headband. This is especially important if you wear hair products that irritate the skin when they drip onto your face while sweating.
Cleanse Your Face After Your Workout
Of course, washing your face directly after your workout is essential. “Ideally, something with salicylic acid (2 percent strength) to clear the pores from sweat and oil,” says Dr. Bhanusali. Just make sure you use a clean towel to dry your face gently afterward.
Always Use a Clean Towel
Towels are great companions for workouts because of how absorbent they are of sweat—but that means they're also pros at absorbing bacteria, oil, and dirt. It's great to blot away sweat during your workouts, but just make sure you're using a clean towel for each new workout. We recommend the Resoré Face Towel—it's made of a super fluffy, antibacterial fabric that's specifically designed to kill acne-causing bacteria.
For Body Acne, Shower Straight Away
Showering right after your workout can prevent breakout-causing bacteria and fungus from sitting on your skin and multiplying. “It’s common to see fungal folliculitis that can look like acne. This is common in our patients who do workout classes and then head to brunch without showering,” says Bhanusali.
"After your workout, it’s important to cleanse away sweat and bacteria, which ultimately prevents your pores from getting clogged. To help prevent pimples, try a soothing serum like W3LL People Bio Brightener Priming Serum and a fragrance-free cream like Keys Soulcare Skin Transformation Cream (fragrance-free) after you wash your face.
If you don’t have time for a full shower, wash your face, or use a shower cap and rinse your body at a minimum.
Clean Your Equipment
Shared equipment or even your own equipment used without being washed can contain bacterial growth that leads to breakouts. Cleaning your equipment before use, especially if it is shared, is an excellent way to prevent exposure to this bacteria.
"Always wipe down your exercise equipment whether it’s a home gym or public gym. Sanitizing equipment before use will help get rid of the bacteria and dirt that may potentially find its way to your skin, causing breakouts as a result," says Graf.
Wipe down free weights, machines, and handles of equipment before use as well as afterward. For your own pieces such as yoga mats, straps, Pilates balls, or any other tools, spray them down with a cleaning product designed for that purpose after each use and allow them to air dry if possible.
Always Wash Your Clothes
Bhanusali recommends always washing your workout clothing after each workout session. Sweaty clothing can harbor bacteria and fungus that lead to breakouts. Don't forget about hats, headbands, helmets, or any other equipment that you wear while exercising. If additives and fragrances cause you to break out, look for a brand free from perfumes and harsh chemicals
Choose Proper Clothing
Choosing clothing that is breathable and well-fitting can go a long way to preventing breakouts as well. If sweat is trapped under non-breathable fabrics, it can lead to breakouts. As well, if your clothing is tight and chafes your skin, it can push bacteria and dirt into the skin and irritate it to the point where it reacts with pimples and bumps.
Some fabrics are better than others, namely those that are sweat-wicking, such as:
Fabrics to avoid include cotton or anything rubber or plastic-based. Cotton is highly absorbable and not sweat-wicking, while rubber and plastic materials do not allow proper airflow.