In addition to boasting a slew of proven health benefits for the body and mind, regular exercise can help to improve the skin’s vitality and radiance. Exercise stimulates the lymphatic system and increases blood flow, helping to carry oxygen and nutrients to the skin and translating to visibly healthier skin overall.
Exercise also helps to decrease the cumulative impact of stress on the skin. Widely recognized as an aggravator of numerous skin conditions including acne, rosacea, psoriasis and eczema, stress causes hormone levels to rise, in turn increasing inflammation and dehydration and impairing the skin’s barrier function. Controlling stress levels via regular exercise helps to decrease the production of these hormones to reduce overall inflammation.
One largely unavoidable product of exercising is perspiration. Located in the dermis, sweat glands open through pores in the skin and allow the release of free radicals. Sweat releases a cooling sensation as it evaporates from the skin, which helps to lower the body’s core temperature.
Although sweating is a normal, healthy mechanism, it may complicate matters for patients with sensitive or acne-prone skin. When sweat combines with excess oil and sebum, it can clog pores and encourage bacteria to breed, in turn causing blackheads, whiteheads and pimples to form. Patients are also likely to rub their faces when perspiring excessively, which can transfer bacteria to the skin and further aggravate conditions such as acne and dermatitis.
A type of acne called acne mechanica occurs from friction or chafing of the skin. This is especially common in athletes who wear protective gear, such as shin pads, as these apparatuses trap sweat and oils against the skin. Wearing loose-fitting, moisture-absorbent clothing when exercising can help prevent this type of irritation.
In rare cases, a chronic inflammatory skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa may develop. Also known as acne inversa because of its close resemblance to acne symptoms, hidradenitis suppurativa surfaces in the form of painful, pus-filled lesions and abscesses that most often occur in areas where the skin rubs together, such as the groin, thighs or armpits. Though fairly uncommon, hidradenitis suppurativa is a chronic condition and is often misdiagnosed, making it difficult to treat.
For acne-prone patients, proper cleansing and exfoliating prior to exercise helps to ensure that skin is free from makeup, sebum and dead skin cells that may clog the pores when breaking a sweat. Face washes containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide are most effective at removing dead skin cells to give the skin a “clean slate.”
If it isn’t convenient to wash post-workout, cleansing wipes or toners are efficient and effective options to remove sweat from the skin. Use a noncomedogenic moisturizer daily (such as SkinMedica® Ultra Sheer Moisturizer) to counteract the dryness that may occur with frequent face washings.
Many sports and activities take place outdoors, which means increased sun exposure and a need for diligent sunscreen use. Apply sun protection 20 to 30 minutes before heading outside, and reapply after excessive sweating or swimming. Recent FDA mandates prohibit sunscreen manufacturers from using terms like “sweatproof” and “waterproof” on SPF bottles; a sunscreen may claim to be “water resistant” if labeling includes the length of time that it protects the skin during swimming or sweating.
I also recommend applying a topical antioxidant each morning, to supplement sunscreen protection.
By maintaining this simple routine, your skin can stay protected while truly reaping the rewards of exercise: increased vitality and a more youthful appearance over time.