Let’s face it. We exercise not just to benefit our health, but to improve our appearance, right?
Exercise helps us keep our weight under control, and also gets the blood pumping, which gives us that healthy flush. Dermatologists know that stimulating circulation keeps skin looking vibrant, while reducing stress and its damaging effects on the skin.
How discouraging, then, to dedicate time to working out, only to break out afterwards.
Does working out cause acne, or is there something else going on here?
Science Says It’s Not the Sweat
It was back in 1975 that researchers first described a type of acne that seemed to develop from mechanical forces in the skin found to be common in football players. They reported that acne developed in areas where the helmet or uniform padding rubbed on the body. The idea is that heat, pressure, friction, rubbing the skin, and sweat—when combined—can all result in breakouts.
The idea spawned a rumor that’s potentially damaging to health—that exercise causes acne. Over time, the perception in people’s minds was that exercise produced sweat, which worsened acne.
Is it true? A small 2005 study attempted to find out. They split 23 men into three groups:
- Group one did no exercise at all.
- Group two exercised, breaking out in a sweat, in a 100% cotton T-shirt, and showered four hours after exercising.
- Group three exercised, breaking out in a sweat, in a 100% cotton T-shirt, and showered within one hour of exercising.
The groups that exercised did so five days a week for two weeks. After each period, investigators examined any acne that developed. They found that though the men developed acne, it did not have anything to do with exercise, time of sweating during exercise, or the time interval between exercising and taking a shower. Those who exercised developed no more acne than those who didn’t.
The researchers concluded that exercise had no bearing on acne breakouts.
So if you were hoping to avoid exercise with the excuse that it causes acne, you’re out of luck!
In fact, would you be surprised to learn that sweat can actually be good for your skin?
When Sweat Can Be a Good Thing
Here’s something to blow your mind—science has discovered that sweat is anti-bacterial.
In 2001, for example, researchers reported that human sweat contains an antimicrobial protein. Called “dermcidin,” it acts against a wide range of microorganisms, and can actually help reduce the risk of infection. In tests, it proved to be effective against the bacteria Escherichia coli, Enterococcus faecalis, and Staphylococcus aureus. It also had an anti-fungal property, effective against Candida albicans.
A later 2013 study found similar results. Scientists reported that dermcidin was highly effective against tuberculosis germs and other dangerous bugs. And in a 2005 study, researchers reported that patients with atopic dermatitis had reduced levels of dermcidin in their sweat.
Acne is caused by bacteria gathering in our pores, but sweat naturally fights bacteria, so we can’t blame the sweat.
Still, there’s no doubt some people suffer from acne after exercising. What could be causing it?
What Increases Risk of Acne with Exercise?
There are other factors at work. As the researchers originally found in the 1970s, it’s not the sweat that’s the problem, but what else it comes into contact with. In the case of the football players, the helmets and padding were the culprits.
Clothing that is tight or restrictive may cause similar issues. These types of clothes can irritate skin, and spread bacteria into pores. Anything that rubs is also a bad idea. Looser clothing may solve the problem.
Certain materials can also be irritating. Polyester and other man-made fabrics, for instance, can trap oils and bacteria next to skin, increasing the risk for breakouts. Look for fabrics that wick moisture away and help it to evaporate, or choose cotton and other natural materials.
How do you feel in your clothes? Anything that is itchy or irritating can aggravate skin. Choose comfortable items that feel good.
Tips to Help You Reduce Your Risk of a Post-workout Breakout
- Workout without makeup. Cleanse skin before hand, apply a non-clogging moisturizer, and go bare to be sure makeup ingredients don’t clog your pores.
- Keep your hands away from your face. Your hands touch exercise equipment, which likely has bacteria on it. Try to keep your hands away from your skin until you clean up after your workout.
- Cleanse after your workout. Though the study above noted that it didn’t matter when participants washed off sweat, cleansing after a workout is a good idea in case you collected any bacteria on your skin. Exercise equipment, your hands, and cloths used to sop up sweat can all be sources of bacteria.
- Exfoliate more often. Dead skin cells are one of the primary factors in causing acne. They build up on the surface of skin and trap bacteria and sebum inside pores. If you’re sweating and washing regularly, you may have more than you think. Step up your exfoliation and see if that helps. Dry skin brushing can be helpful for body acne.
- Exercise in a cooler environment. Increased body temperature can cause flushing, which may increase risk of acne and also lead to rosacea and psoriasis flare-ups. Try walking or jogging in the cool hours of the morning or evening, or swimming.
- Choose your moisturizer wisely. Common moisturizing products may contain fragrances, preservatives, and other ingredients that can aggravate and irritate skin, increasing risk of acne. Choose natural ingredients that work with your skin, and then apply before your workout, and again after you’ve cleaned up after your workout.
Exercise is Good for Skin!
We hope that you don’t let post-workout breakouts discourage you from exercising. It’s not only critical for your long-term health, but it improves the health of your skin! Here are just a few of the benefits:
- Increases circulation.
- Dilates pores, allowing sweat to expel trapped dirt and oil.
- Reduces inflammation (and less inflammation means less acne.)
- Regulates hormones so they’re less likely to cause acne.
- Prevents free-radical damage.
In fact, recent studies have revealed that exercise actually helps reverse the skin’s aging process. In 2014, researchers from Ontario found that participants who performed at least three hours of moderate or vigorous exercise every week had skin closer in composition to 20- and 30-year-olds than others of their age, even if they were past the age of 65.
In a follow-up study on participants 65 and older, researchers found that those who worked out twice a week by jogging or cycling for 30 minutes for three months had skin similar to 20- to 40-year-olds. Researchers commented that the results were remarkable, and that the skin “looked like that of a much younger person, and all that they had done differently was exercise.”
Don’t rob yourself of this anti-aging secret because of acne. Try our tips above and keep moving!
Have you struggled with breakouts after exercise? Please share your story.
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology - Debunking the Exercise and Acne Myth: A Single-blinded Randomized Study on the Effect of Exercise-induced Occlusion on Truncal Acne
Pediatric Dermatology - A Single-blinded, Randomized Pilot Study to Evaluate the Effect of Exercise-Induced Sweat on Truncal Acne
Science Daily - Acne May Prevent People From Participating In Sport And Exercise, Says Research
Scientific American - Scientists Find an Antimicrobial Protein in Human Sweat
The Journal of Immunology - Deficiency of Dermcidin-Derived Antimicrobial Peptides in Sweat of Patients with Atopic Dermatitis Correlates with an Impaired Innate Defense of Human Skin In Vivo1