Working out is one of the best things you can do for your health. Regular exercise can help you control your weight, boost strength and flexibility, improve heart health and reduce stress. The list of benefits is long!
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The effects of exercise on acne, however, aren’t as clear-cut, says dermatologist John Anthony, MD. “Each person has different factors that trigger or prevent acne,” he says. “How exercise affects someone’s skin can vary widely.”
What causes acne?
Acne develops in the hair follicles, or pores, of your skin. Glands inside of your pores produce sebum, an oily substance that helps keep your skin and hair moist. Sebum, bacteria and dead skin cells can plug your pores and cause pimples.
“Those plugs are not really dirt,” says Dr. Anthony. “Acne is a feature of your skin, hormones and genetics. Outside factors such as stress, medications and diet can also contribute. Some people believe you can scrub these plugs away, but that’s not usually the case.”
There are many types of pimples, ranging from blackheads and whiteheads to more inflamed nodules and cysts. Pimples are most common during the teen years, but nearly everyone experiences acne at some point. Some people still get acne well into adulthood.
Can exercise help acne?
Maybe, says Dr. Anthony. “Not all people find that exercise improves their acne.”
But there’s some evidence that exercise may help.
For example, one recent study looked at the skin health of elite athletes who exercised more than eight hours per week. The researchers found that these athletes had less acne and other skin problems than recreational athletes who exercised for fewer hours.
Another study asked participants what they noticed about acne. More than 40% felt that exercise led to improvement.
Though there’s limited data, exercise may affect acne through:
- Decreased inflammation.
- Increased blood flow to your skin.
- Lower stress levels.
Does working out cause acne?
For some people, exercise makes acne worse. This effect might be due to increased sweat and oil on the skin that clogs pores.
Exercise supplements that boost androgens or testosterone can also cause acne flares. Androgens, which include testosterone, are a group of hormones that help reproductive health and development. People take androgenic supplements to increase muscle mass. Dr. Anthony recommends avoiding these supplements for clearer skin.
“The good news is that even if you feel like exercise aggravates your acne, there are ways to manage that,” he notes.
Taking care of your skin after a workout
If you have acne-prone skin, your skin care regimen should include cleansing twice daily and applying a noncomedogenic moisturizer as needed. Sunscreen is also essential if you’ll be outdoors during the day.
Make sure the products you use are noncomedogenic, which means they won’t clog your pores.
After a workout, Dr. Anthony recommends cleansing your skin right away. “Use a medicated cleanser if you have a prescription,” he says. “Otherwise, try an over-the-counter cleanser that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.”
Other post-workout recommendations include:
- Holding off using topical medications until after your workout.
- Wearing moisture-wicking clothing if you have acne on your back or chest.
When to talk to a healthcare provider about acne
Dr. Anthony recommends talking to your healthcare provider or dermatologist if you have:
- Acne that’s not improving: If you’ve tried different products or strategies and continue to have breakouts, a healthcare professional can help you target treatment for your condition.
- Hormonal acne: This type of acne results from changing hormone levels in your body. Signs you may have hormonal acne include having acne plus irregular menstrual cycles or hair growth in places you wouldn’t expect. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is often associated with hormonal acne.
- Inflammatory acne, including nodules or cysts: Because nodular and cystic acne can cause scars, consider seeking medical care early — especially if over-the-counter products aren’t quickly effective. Early treatment can prevent permanent damage to your skin that can affect your self-esteem and well-being.
How do healthcare providers treat acne?
There are many over-the-counter treatments and home remedies — some more effective than others. The effectiveness of a treatment often depends on the type of acne you have. For example, cystic acne doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medicines.
If you’ve tried over-the-counter products without success, you may need stronger prescription medications. Your healthcare provider may prescribe:
- Topical medications: Retinoids, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.
- Oral medications: Antibiotics, oral contraceptives and isotretinoin.
- Other therapies: Steroid injections into large nodules.
Being active is important, and acne shouldn’t interfere with your exercise routine. If you notice that your acne gets worse when you work out, reach out to a healthcare professional. They have a range of tools to treat your condition so you feel comfortable hitting the gym, field or trail.