Exercise and acne are often talked about simultaneously in skincare articles. If you suffer from severe acne, then you’ve probably heard at some point during your acne journey that exercising can help prevent acne.
However, there’s something about a face covered in sweat that just doesn’t feel very cleansing. In fact, you may notice more pimples showing up after a workout.
What’s the deal with working out and acne? Does exercise actually help prevent acne or is this just another clear-skin myth?
Keep reading to find out.
Does Exercise Help Acne?
From a general health perspective, exercise can potentially help clear up some acne by improving your blood circulation and promoting a healthy lymphatic system.
However, in my experience having acne, no amount of exercise or healthy eating was ever enough to give me clear skin. In fact, I never saw a difference in my acne related to how much I exercised.
I’m a relatively active person to begin with, so maybe if you’re more sedentary, you could notice some changes in your skin by hitting the gym. For people with severe acne, though, especially if you suffer from hormonal, cystic acne like I did, exercise alone likely won’t be enough to cure your acne.
That said, if you don’t exercise regularly, I’d highly recommend getting into a workout schedule. Whether it helps your acne or not, you don’t have anything to lose by adopting a healthier lifestyle. And, who knows? Maybe exercising will be what works for your skin.
Acne and Sweat: Exercising with Acne in Mind
While exercise itself can be a great way to promote a healthier body and potentially healthier skin, the sweat that you produce during your workout may actually cause further breakouts.
This isn’t true for everyone, but if you already have acne and sensitive skin, it’s likely that you’ll experience some sweat-related breakouts from exercising, especially if you don’t exercise regularly already.
However, I strongly encourage you to not be deterred by this. I know none of us wants any extra pimples but, with exercising, the chances are that the more you do it, the less your skin is likely to react to a sweaty workout.
Plus, there are some ways that you can minimize acne and exercise as much as you want.
How I Manage Exercise and Acne: My Fitness Story
I’ve been exercising regularly (three to four times a week, sometimes more, sometimes less) for about four years.
I started off jogging around my development, gradually working my way up to being able to run for one hour, straight. As someone who’s not a naturally good runner, this was a huge accomplishment for me, and it encouraged me to keep setting new fitness goals for myself.
In 2015 I ran and completed my first half marathon. For those of you who might not know, that means I ran 13.1 miles without stopping. BIG deal for someone like myself who used to get winded running around the soccer field in gym class.
After all the training I did for the half marathon, I had lost some body fat and decided to start lifting weights to capitalize on the slightly better muscle-to-fat ratio I had going on at the time. I started working out on my husband’s Bowflex, but eventually found that I really liked powerlifting.
I joined a Gold’s Gym in early 2016 and quickly fell in love with compound lifts like the deadlift, squats, bench pressing and bent-over rows. For the next four to five months I focused on adding weight to my lifts and gradually got more muscular.
My goal when I joined the gym was to be able to squat my bodyweight, which at the time was 135 lbs. Sometime around May of 2016, I met my goal.
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Since then, I’ve done some kind of combination of cardio and lifting almost every week. Some weeks I feel more like running, some week’s I’d rather lift. However, I almost always work out at least three days a week.
I tell you all of that to tell you this: I’ve done a pretty wide range of exercises and have definitely sweated my ass off during workouts.
Throughout my entire fitness journey, I also suffered from acne and had exceptionally horrible acne from the end of 2017 into 2018. I’ve tried a lot of different ways to reconcile my exercise and acne care routines.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned about exercise and acne.
1. Workout supplements can break out out
If you get super into your workout plans and goals like I do, then you’ve probably at least considered taking nutritional supplements.
Especially for people interested in lifting weights, protein powders, pre-workout supplements and BCAA supplements are often talked about in the exercise community. However, it’s been my experience that, if you’re already an acne-prone person, these supplements can definitely affect your skin.
People whose acne worsens when they eat dairy, for instance, should probably stay away from whey protein supplements. This common kind of protein powder is a great way to get 20-30 extra grams of protein in your diet, but since it’s made from milk protein it might not be a good fit for an acne-prone person. Consider looking for a vegan or other plant-based protein powder instead.
Likewise, many pre-workout supplements not only have tons of caffeine in them, but also have additional ingredients that are meant to really wake you up and get you ready to lift heavy weight. Not only could adding a bunch of unfamiliar ingredients into your diet cause your skin to break out, but taking supplements that force your body to be on high alert could potentially increase your cortisone output, which can also cause more acne.
Now that I’m working more toward a general body shape and more stable fitness goal, I don’t take protein or pre-/post-workout supplements. I get what nutrients I need from the food I eat and have been able to manage my workouts and clear skin just fine that way.
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2. You need to have a good body soap to prevent body acne
If you’re actually interested in improving your health and fitness when you’re exercising, you should be sweating. Heck, even if I’m just doing yoga I get sweaty, let alone if it’s deadlift day.
So, as you’re working out, all of that sweat is getting stuck in your clothes and, if you’re a lady, your bra line. If you don’t wash your body thoroughly after each workout, you’re probably going to start getting acne on your back and chest.
And, even when you do take a shower after your workouts, your normal body wash may not cut it. Being the acne-prone person that I am, this is what happened to me.
I tried using some grapefruit acne-fighting body washes, which worked for a little bit. But, in the end, the body soap that has consistently worked for me is the Noble Formula Zinc bar soap.
No matter how disgusting I get when I work out (and I am a serious sweater), this stuff keeps me from EVER having chest or back acne. It’s seriously amazing.
3. You shouldn’t wash your face more than twice a day
You might be wondering what this has to do with exercise. Well, if you wear makeup during your day-to-day life and work out at night, it can be really tempting to remove your makeup before working out.
I would recommend not doing this. I know, I know, it sounds disgusting. Sweating with your makeup on? Won’t your pores get super clogged and gross?
Well, maybe. I don’t know. I’m not a dermatologist. But I have had acne and been exercising regularly for years, and I know that I actually break out worse when I remove my makeup before working out. Here’s my theory about why:
When you take your makeup off before your work out, you’re stripping away your skin’s oils and natural barriers. Even if you have a very gentle makeup remover and cleanser, just washing your face inevitably removes some of the top layer of your skin.
Unless you’re a professional athlete, you’re probably only going to work out for an hour or so. You’re going to get gross and smelly and you’re going to (hopefully) take a shower when you’re done. In the shower, you’re probably going to wash your face again. After all, that sweat’s probably clogging up your pores and you don’t want that, right?
However, what you’ve just done is wash your face twice in a few hours, which means your skin’s natural oils and protective barrier is even less present. By not having much of those biologically necessary barriers left, your skin is probably damaged, stressed and not able to effectively keep dirt and bacteria out of your pores like it normally would.
By working out with your makeup on, you can get all gross and sweaty, wash your makeup off, and not over-cleanse your skin. For me, this seems to be much gentler on my skin and I actually had fewer new pimples after I switched to doing this instead of taking my makeup off pre-workout.
This brings me to the fourth thing I’ve learned about acne and exercise…
4. You need to have a good facial cleanser to use post-workout
The only thing that makes the workout-in-your-makeup trick work is if you can effectively clean your skin after your workout.
If you’re just getting sweaty with your makeup on and not thoroughly cleaning it afterward, you’re probably going to have more breakouts.
I personally find it best to use a gentle cleansing oil or serum to wipe my makeup off after exercising, and then follow up with a foaming cleanser, just to make sure no sweaty makeup particles are left sitting on my skin.
5. Don’t wipe the sweat off of your face when exercising
And just one more thing I’ve learned about exercising with acne: don’t touch your face while you’re working out!
Listen, no one — and I do mean no one — hates having makeup sweat run down their face when they’re working out more than I do. It feels so gross. But do yourself a favor and don’t touch your face.
Specifically, don’t touch your face with your hands. Especially if you go to a public gym.
You don’t know whose hands were on the dumbbells before you, who used the elliptical last, etc. The last thing you want to do to acne-prone skin is wipe someone else’s disgusting sweat germs into your pores. Yuck.
If you MUST, I find a super light dab to the forehead or face with a clean towel is an okay way to keep sweat from getting in your eyes while you’re working out. However, I don’t even like to do this because you could be pushing that makeup sweat into your pores, which could make you break out.
For me, I find the best way to cope with not touching my sweaty face is to wear a thick headband in my hair to stop some of the sweat from bothering me.
Besides that, I just think about how awesome that shower is going to feel and do whatever it takes to not touch my face.
How Does Your Acne Respond to Exercise?
Exercising regularly is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. It’s a great way to take care of your body and your skin long-term. However, as with everything else, it’s just a little more complicated for those of us with acne.
What’s your experience with exercise and acne? What helps you manage both? Share your tips in the comments section below.