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8 Exercise-Induced Skin Afflictions

"Runner's Face"

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While some sagging of the skin on your face is just part of aging, it's true that running can have a negative impact on skin elasticity. Contrary to popular belief, the effect of gravity from the constant pavement pounding isn't to blame, but rather some experts believe that "cardio and running can cause more oxygen or free-radical damage, which can break or damage the skin's supportive fibers (collagen and elastin)," says Dr. Annet King, director of training and education at Dermalogica.

But don't retire your running shoes just yet. According to a 2008 study published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, only very strenuous exercise leads to signs of cell damage, while moderate exercise—defined as exercising at 40 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate three to five days per week—has a rejuvenating effect on skin. And don't worry: HIIT is in the safe zone. The detrimental effects don't kick in until after 90 minutes of running at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, the scientists say. Keep your workouts short and sweaty and you'll reap all the fat-burning and anti-aging benefits!

Droopy Boobs

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"High-impact exercise, like running and jumping rope, can contribute to premature sagging by stretching out the ligaments in your breasts," says Sabrena Merrill, a personal trainer and spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. For this reason, Dr. LaJean Lawson, Ph.D., adjunct professor of exercise and sport science at Oregon State University, adds that the importance of a well-fitting sports bra that minimizes boob bouncing cannot be overstated. "It's not enough that it's "cute" or that your running partner loves a particular style. Start with analyzing your favorite activities according to the amount of bounce they produce. Then put your size per-conceptions behind you and be willing to get properly fitted," she says. Dr. Lawson recommends doing a test drive in the dressing room by mimicking actions you would do in your workout.

While small-chested women have a plethora of style options, larger chested ladies need to be more picky. Bras like those from Enell specialize in C-cup and above with specialized fabric, wider straps, and a series of corset-like hooks up the front that hold you rock-solid through even the highest-impact workouts.


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Zits aren't just for pre-teens, as anyone who has had a bad case of sweat-induced bacne can attest. According to, exercise in and of itself doesn't cause breakouts but it's more about your hygiene. "Sweat creates a warm, moist environment that's very attractive to P. acnes, the bacteria that cause acne. This is exacerbated if you're wearing sunscreen or makeup while you exercise because you're creating a closed environment for your pores, encouraging more bacteria and clogging. In addition, if your workout routine or daily activities require you to wear a hat, helmet, backpack, or non-breathable clothing, these materials can rub against acne-prone areas of the body, causing a phenomenon called acne mechanica. The friction stimulates the sebaceous gland to produce excess oil that mixes with dead skin cells and clogs pores."

The best way to prevent back, neck, chest, and face acne is to shower immediately after your workout and to wear loose, breathable, natural fabrics and clothing.

Ingrown Hairs

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Bikini bumps (and other types of ingrown hairs) can be as painful as they are unsightly. And not only do they sting like a paper cut doused in lemon juice when you sweat, but the micro-cuts put you at risk for nasty skin infections. According to the Mayo Clinic, two main factors affect your propensity for ingrown hairs. First, curly hair is more prone to becoming ingrown, and second, improper shaving technique.

"Shaving creates sharp edges in this type of hair, especially if the hair is dry when shaved. When you pull your skin taut during shaving, the newly cut hair draws back into the skin, causing it to re-enter the skin without first growing out (transfollicular penetration). When the shaved hair starts to grow out, it curls back to re-enter the skin (extrafollicular penetration)."

To prevent ingrown hairs, experts advise learning proper shaving technique or switching to a different type of hair removal, like a depilatory cream. What exactly is "proper shaving technique?" Here's a three-step guide from the experts at Gillette:

1. Wait until the end of your shower to shave. This gives your hair time to soften and the follicles time to open.
2. Use a cream or lotion specifically designed for shaving. Unlike regular soaps or shampoos, these products have ingredients to help soften and break down the hair.
3. Shave in the direction your hair grows, rather than against it. This is the key to preventing bumps. If you're shaving your armpits, use a "star" pattern radiating out from the center.

Inflammatory Skin Conditions

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Exercise can leave you red-faced in more ways than one. While a flush from a hard run is normal (as is one after falling off the treadmill), all that blood rushing to your face can exacerbate existing skin conditions like rosacea and miliaria (also called "sweat rash"), making already inflamed skin even worse. Dr. Runhild Gammelsaeter, Ph.D., cellular physiologist and the researcher behind Freya Skin Care has a simple solution: "In Scandinavia mothers used to wash their faces in ice cold water every morning. This helped stimulate blood circulation, which improved collagen production and the skin's natural defense system. Sometimes the simple, easily available works the best." There are also medical treatments available to ameliorate chronic redness. Dr. Gammelsaeter advises making an appointment with a dermatologist to learn more about treatment options.

Skin Infections

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Flesh-eating bacteria is one of the more terrifying diseases of late, and like other scary skin infections such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), impetigo, and strep, it thrives in the warm, moist environment of most gyms. But, as the Mayo Clinic points out, while community-acquired cases such as those in gyms, locker rooms, and designer wedding dress sample sales (anywhere there is a lot of wrestling involved) are on the rise, "most MRSA infections occur in people who have been in hospitals or other health care settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers."

Even though the nasty infections aren't very common, Dr. James Marrotta, M.D., a facial plastic surgeon in Long Island, New York, says that there are still plenty of microbes in the gym and taking sensible precautions are important. "Take care of the little things. Don't expose open skin [wounds] to the gym. Wash your hands with regular soap, singing "Happy Birthday" three times through. And shower right after your workout."

If you do end up with a bump or rash, keep the area clean and try using a topical cream like Bacitracin. If home remedies don't stop the pain or if you notice any quick changes in shape, diameter, color, or size, call your doctor right away, Dr. Marrotta says.

Sun Damage

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We've all seen them at marathon starting lines: the grizzled runners whose dark tans and deep wrinkles speak to many hours running outdoors in the beautiful-but-damaging sunshine. From premature aging to melanoma, the risks of sun damage are well known, yet many athletes simply accept it as the price they pay to stay outdoors. Not so, says Dr. Gammelsaeter. "The number-one mistake I see women make with their skin is not wearing sunscreen." She advises daily application of sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher everywhere the sun hits, not just your face, when playing or exercising outside.

What if you already have sun damage? All is not lost, Dr. Marrotta says. "The skin has a tremendous capacity to regenerate." Chemical exfoliation is the best way to remove extra layers of dead cells that are holding all of the brown pigment that has accumulated over the years. Look for a product with a five to eight percent concentration of glycolic acid (like BeautyRX Daily Exfoliating Therapy Serum), and follow the directions on the bottle. For lightening brown spots, look for a product with a two percent concentration of the active ingredient hydroquinone (like Murad Age Spot & Pigment Gel), and apply it two to three times a day, making sure to always wear SPF too!


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Countless workouts have been cut short due to the friction burns caused by skin rubbing on skin (especially if it also involves razor stubble like in your pits or bikini area—ouch!). Protection is the best defense, Dr. Lawson says: "Choose smooth, low-friction fabrics to limit chafing." She adds that if you are large chested, "there is often more contact/rubbing between the breasts themselves than the rest of the body" so an "encapsulation" type sports bra that separates each breast into it's own cup can help. Other friction-less options include compression gear, body lubricants like Body Glide, and making sure your clothing is appropriate and well-fitted (i.e. wear running tights instead of shorts if you typically get thigh rub).


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