How Exercise Affects Your Skin, The Good And Bad

A good workout can make you glow, but sweat and tight clothing may exacerbate some skin conditions. Here's how to combat skin troubles.

Does it really need to be said that exercise is good for you? The list of ways in which it’s beneficial is long and varied, from building muscle to improving your mood ― to maybe even giving you more radiant skin.

But while exercise helps keep skin healthy, it can also irritate your outer layer, causing breakouts. And hives. And rashes. And infections. Workouts can lead to acne and redness and a whole host of other issues. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these effects (and they’re pretty easy, too).

First, let’s start with the how and why exercise benefits your skin.

Exercise increases the heart rate and improves blood circulation, delivering oxygen and nutrients to the skin.
Exercise increases the heart rate and improves blood circulation, delivering oxygen and nutrients to the skin.

How working out may positively impact your skin

“Exercise has innumerable benefits for the body overall and especially for our skin,” said Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama.

Most of that good has to do with the way your workout gets your heart pumping. “During exercise, the heart rate increases and improves blood circulation, which helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the skin,” Hartman told HuffPost. “This rush of oxygen and nutrients promotes the development of collagen to prevent skin sagging and regenerates new skin cells to keep the skin glowing and exfoliating properly.”

While the verdict is still out on just how much exercise can improve the visual appearance of your skin, early evidence shows promise for overall skin health, wound healing and anti-aging, according to Jordan V. Wang, a dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. Like Hartman, Wang said that increased blood flow to the skin is one big benefit, explaining that nutrient-rich blood can “flush out unwanted byproducts of skin cells and contribute to having a healthy glow.”

The anti-inflammatory effects of exercise may play a positive role as well. “Too much inflammation can contribute to damaging key proteins in our body, which can affect normal and healthy functioning,” Wang said. This may extend to the skin too, although Wang was clear that more research is needed to determine exactly how far these benefits go.

Brian B. Adams, a board-certified dermatologist, chair of dermatology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and the university’s director of sports dermatology, was less enthusiastic when asked about the particular benefits that exercise might have for skin. “People always ask me this question,” he said. “There are no direct beneficial effects on the skin from exercise. People who have recently worked out might have an erythematous glow and some people think that that looks good.”

How exercise can negatively affect your skin

Without appropriate precautions, your workouts can cause new skin problems and exacerbate existing conditions.

“Exercise can increase sweat, and that can cause certain skin conditions to flare,” Hartman said. These may include acne, eczema and folliculitis, an inflammation of hair follicles. “Moist conditions on our skin can encourage the normal bacteria that live on our skin and function positively to suddenly overgrow, clogging pores and leading to pus bumps and painful acne nodules,” he said.

Getting out of sweaty clothes as soon as possible after a workout can help reduce any negative side effects on your skin.
Getting out of sweaty clothes as soon as possible after a workout can help reduce any negative side effects on your skin.

The combination of sweat, tight-fighting clothing and high friction can also bring problems. “For example, rashes in folded areas, such as the inner thighs, knees and elbows, can worsen with chronic rubbing from running or weight lifting routines,” Wang said.

How to mitigate these issues while still getting in your workouts

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the bad so you can reap more of the good.

Before you work out, apply emollients or thick creams that provide a barrier to protect areas experiencing high friction, like those aforementioned inner thighs, knees and elbows. If you’ll be outside, make sure to wear SPF to prevent sun damage. Wang even suggests wearing a product with antioxidants — especially if you’re in a city — to protect against pollution.

After exercise, washing your face can remove the buildup of sweat, oil and environmental pollutants that may lead to acne, but getting out of your clothes and into a shower is even better. “The best way to control the negative effects of exercise on skin is to remove all sweaty workout clothes as quickly as possible after a workout, especially those that are tight-fitting. ... Taking a shower promptly after a workout also helps to keep bacteria numbers manageable,” Hartman said.

Shedding those compression pants, in particular, can be helpful in preventing folliculitis, which often shows up as red, pimple-like bumps on your butt. “Use of a benzoyl peroxide wash in the shower a few times per week can also prevent these bumps from occurring,” Wang said.

And if you’re noticing drier skin, that may be due to sodium-rich sweat. While a shower will help rinse the sweat off (and moisturizer will help rehydrate skin), Adams goes one step further and suggests skipping soap when it comes to your arms, legs, back and chest. “Only water needs to hit these areas to keep you clean,” he shared, adding that you should still make sure you’re soaping up your face, underarms and groin.

For more insidious problems, like infections, foot fungus and warts, Adams advises that you always wear foot protection in locker room showers and surrounding areas, where viruses and fungi can hide. For more extreme cases, take some time off from working out and call your doctor.

These days, your skin may develop an additional irritation: mascne (that’s acne caused by wearing a mask). Safely exercising outside your home now often means that a mask is needed, which doesn’t make skin happy. “[Masks] function much like tight-fitting workout clothes and keep all the oil, bacteria and sweat in place where they can band together to clog pores and cause acne,” Hartman said.

Mascne can be mitigated by always wearing a clean mask and by cleaning your skin soon after a workout.

Adams has seen many cases of rosacea over the last year, too. “Heat is one of the major triggers of rosacea and one’s breath is nearly 100 degrees,” he said. “So when someone constantly exposes their face to 100-degree heat because the mask contains that temperature, they risk flaring the number of bumps and degree of redness on their cheeks, chin and nose.”

Even without a mask, exercise can worsen rosacea due to the heat and increased circulation. Those prone to rosacea should try to reduce overheating when they can.

While exercise’s list of potential negatives for your skin may be long, don’t let that keep you from working out. The benefits of exercise on the body are clear, and the outlook is good that some of those positives may extend to the skin. With some extra care (and a good shower), you’ll reap the benefits of the post-workout glow a little longer.