Skin Care For The Gym: What To Do Before And After You Sweat

We asked skin care experts for their best tips on keeping skin healthy after a workout.
“It’s very important to clean skin gently following a workout to remove bacteria and sweat residue that accumulated during your workout,” a dermatologist told HuffPost.
Hiraman via Getty Images
“It’s very important to clean skin gently following a workout to remove bacteria and sweat residue that accumulated during your workout,” a dermatologist told HuffPost.

It’s well known that working out is beneficial for both our mental and physical health. But what about our skin? Is working out making it worse?

If you go to the gym, you know they tend to be kind of gross. You’ve got a bunch of sweaty people sharing the same equipment, potentially without disinfecting it properly, touching everything from the water fountains to the lockers to the dumbbells.

Then there’s the inevitability of touching your face, potentially spreading germs and bacteria (and maybe other people’s sweat) onto your own skin and into your pores. (If you think you don’t touch your face, you’re probably wrong. It’s been said that the average person touches their face between 2,000 and 3,000 times a day.) Other factors, like your own hair and even your towel choice, can affect whether you experience breakouts or dryness.

We’re not saying going to the gym will destroy your skin or that you should avoid it. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you love getting your regular sweat sessions in but also want to keep your complexion clear and healthy.

Aside from drinking water ― because we all know we should be doing that, both at the gym and elsewhere ― we’ve compiled the best doctor-recommended skin care tips for people who love to exercise.

1. If you can, skip the makeup.

If you’re about to head to a workout, it’s best to do so with a clean, makeup-free face. As your body heats up during a workout, your pores open and “you don’t want that makeup to settle back into the pores,” Dr. Manish Shah, a plastic surgeon based in Denver, told HuffPost.

When you’re working out, “your skin should be able to breathe,” Dr. Robyn Gmyrek, a New York-based dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, said via email. If you’re pressed for time, she noted that “Neutrogena makeup remover cloths and a quick rinse takes five minutes tops!”

But with that being said, we understand that some people aren’t completely comfortable going out with a bare face. According to Shah, those individuals should look for makeup that won’t clog pores ― non-comedogenic is the magic word to look for on labels. Or try a tinted moisturizer or sunscreen to give you a little coverage without being too heavy.

At any rate, “you want to take a little more time to properly clean your face [post-workout] if you didn’t have a chance to go to the gym without makeup.”

That leads us to our next tip:

2. Always, always, always wash your face post-workout.

This one is a must whether you do or don’t wear makeup to the gym.

“It’s very important to clean skin gently following a workout to remove bacteria and sweat residue that accumulated during your workout,” Gmyrek said via email. “It’s also helpful to cool off skin to prevent breaking of blood vessels and return skin temperature to a normal level quicker.”

Even a quick splash of cool water post-workout is a good practice, Gmyrek said. She recommended using a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil or CeraVe to “wash away sweat, oils and bacteria without irritating your skin” and then adding moisturizer or a moisturizer-sunscreen combo before reapplying any makeup.

3. Pack some toner pads in your gym bag.

Another way to get rid of excess dirt and oil is with toning pads ― cotton rounds that come pre-soaked with product ― that contain active ingredients like salicylic acid or glycolic acid, according to Dr. Rita Linkner, a New York-based dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology.

Linker said salicylic acid pads are particularly helpful for anyone with oily skin because salicylic acid does a great job of restraining oil productivity. But both salicylic and glycolic acids, she said, “are great chemical peeling agents that will help take off that layer of sweat along with any residual makeup after you exercise.”

These toning pads are also great for wiping down the front and back of the neck and chest (for ladies, don’t forget in between the breasts, which can get extra sweaty).

“Really anywhere you have the sebaceous oil glands, which is chest, back, back of neck, face, are the key areas you want to make sure you’re wiping down properly,” Linkner said.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you have super sensitive skin, it’s always safest to ask a dermatologist whether chemical exfoliants are right for you.

4. Pick the right gym towel.

Yes, there is such a thing as the right gym towel.

Many gyms provide towels for patrons to use, but bringing your own ensures you know exactly when and how it was cleaned, Linkner noted. If the gym uses a detergent you’re not used to or are perhaps allergic to (whether you’re aware of it or not), your skin could have an allergic reaction.

Then there’s the issue of absorbency.

“You don’t want a super plush towel,” Shah said, explaining that the fluffier and thicker the towel, the more chance it will hold on to bacteria even through a wash cycle. (Washing doesn’t even guarantee your underwear is totally clean.) And if you’re someone who uses a towel more then once ― no judgment, we’ve all done it ― that’s even more reason to take care when choosing a gym towel.

“You want something that’s not a dish towel, not super thin, but sort of medium thickness [and] doesn’t have as much of a plush to it,” Shah said, adding that you should choose something that “doesn’t necessarily have a lot of fiber in it, and doesn’t necessarily [have too many] nooks and crannies for the bacteria to hold on.”

He recommended trying a towel infused with silver, which has antimicrobial properties. A few brands creating such towels, like Silvon, have emerged in recent years. You can also buy silver-infused workout gear.

Linkner also noted that you should have a bit of water left on the surface of the skin once you’ve dried yourself off with your towel. Then, ideally, you’d use a moisturizer to lock those water beads back into the skin, she said.

The most important thing when it comes to gym towels is to make sure you clean them after every use. “Cleanliness is key,” Gmyrek said. For the most part, gyms always provide freshly cleaned towels, so there shouldn’t be cause for concern. But if you are worried, you can always ask how often they wash them to ease your mind (or perhaps inform your decision to bring your own).

5. Keep your hair off your face.

If you have longer hair ― this goes for both men and women ― it’s best to keep it pulled back and away from your face during a workout.

“This helps prevent oils (not to mention any hair products you used that day) from clogging your pores, which can cause breakouts,” Gmyrek said.

You should be a little wary of headbands or sweatbands though, Linkner added. She said they can be both good and bad, as they keep oil, sweat and product reside away from your eyes, but they can also trap sweat that might have acne-inciting ingredients on your forehead.

If you are someone who wears headbands, just make sure you don’t forget to wash your face post-workout. Linkner also said she finds herself planning her exercising around her hair schedule, so she can wash away everything after working out.

6. Don’t touch your face!

We already reminded you that gyms are full of germs and other people’s sweat. which should be enough to convince you not to touch your face when you’re at the gym. This tip is especially important for anyone who’s working with various apparatuses that others are also using, as you don’t want to spread any bacteria onto your skin.

“It’s hard to retrain yourself not to do it, but I tell patients, ‘Do your best to not touch your face,’” Linkner said. “And at the end of your workout, go back to the locker room, get those toner pads and wipe your face down. Let that be the first thing that you do.”

While you’re at it, we’d suggest cleaning your hands, too.

7. Use ice to reduce post-workout redness.

If you’re someone who gets easily flushed after working up a sweat, grab some ice and suck on it. Seriously.

According to Linkner, who said she learned this trick from the chairman of dermatology at Mount Sinai, “If you suck on a piece of ice, there’s a temperature receptor on the hard palate of the mouth and it almost resets all the flushing and blushing in your face.”

The act of sucking on the ice provides a relief, Linkner said, and it’s enough to help “your temperature radiant to come down so you stop flushing and blushing on your own.”

Now that you’re equipped with these gym-centric skin care tips, go forth and get sweating. And don’t forget to wash your face.

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