Learn what causes the zits, how to treat them, and how to avoid breaking out because of sweat, according to dermatologists.
Advertisement
Close up of woman face with sweaty skin
Credit: Getty Images

Get this: Sweating, no matter how sticky and uncomfortable it might feel, is actually good for your skin. It has a multitude of benefits including fighting off bacteria (it contains antimicrobial peptides that can help protect skin from acne) and hydrating your skin, according to research.

At the same time, though, perspiration can also contribute to sweat pimples. If you've ever noticed a breakout after completing a challenging workout or spending time outside during a hot, humid day, then chances are you're familiar with the concept of developing pimples after sweating.

It's a common issue that can affect any skin type, explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York. Thankfully, conquering sweat pimples doesn't have to mean dialing down the intensity of your exercise routine or outdoor adventures. Ahead, dermatologists explain everything you need to know about sweat pimples, including their cause (spoiler: there's more at play than just sweat) and how to get rid of them.

What Are Sweat Pimples?

Sweat pimples are — as you probably guessed — zits that pop up after you break a sweat. A sweat breakout can appear as various types of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, and in some cases, red, pus-filled pimples, says Dr. Zeichner.

While pimples can pop up post-perspiration (say that five times fast), sweat isn't solely responsible. "Sweat doesn't actually block the pores," says Dr. Zeichner. "In fact, it can help flush out the sweat glands. However, if you are sweating and there is dirt, oil, or makeup [already] on the skin, the mixture can end up blocking the pores, thereby causing breakouts."

Sweat pimples can appear anywhere on your face or body. They affect all skin types, but those who are acne-prone may be more susceptible to these types of breakouts since their skin already produces excess sebum (oil), which can contribute to clogged pores, explains Dr. Zeichner.

Since sweaty conditions are a contributing factor to these breakouts, sweat pimples often get mistaken for heat rash, says Alicia Zalka, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of skin-care brand Surface Deep. Heat rash appears as itchy bumps on the skin that look similar to pimples. It's caused by sweat getting trapped under your skin due to blocked sweat ducts while sweat pimples, on the other hand, are a result of clogged sebaceous glands (aka the glands in your skin that produce oil), explains Dr. Zalka. The risk factors for sweat pimples and heat rash are similar (read: hot, humid climates, tight-fitted or occlusive clothing, or a lot of physical activity), which adds to the confusion, she says.

How to Prevent Sweat Pimples

If you've noticed that your face breaks out after sweating, you can start taking preventative steps to avoid future pimples. "Don't work out with makeup on and wash your face (and body) after a workout," says Dr. Zeichner. During your workout, make sure you keep a towel handy so that the sweat doesn't get a chance to linger on the skin, which can otherwise offer more a chance for the pores to get clogged with dirt and bacteria, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And once you've completed your cool-down, "get out of sweaty clothes as soon as possible, so they don't sit on the skin," says Dr. Zeichner.

It may also help to start incorporating salicylic acid into your skin-care routine. "Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that can help remove dead cells and oil from the skin to keep the pores clear, making your skin less likely to break out when you get sweaty," explains Dr. Zeichner. You can either opt for a wash-off or a leave-on product, such as JORI Acne & Oil Control Primer, which will have more time to penetrate your skin to treat and prevent breakouts. If you're looking for a product to get rid of body acne (e.g. "bacne"), try the Dove Body Love Acne Clear Body Cleanser.

Adapalene, an over-the-counter retinoid, can also help treat and prevent blackheads and whiteheads. "Think of adapalene like a pipe cleaner [think: Drano not crafts] to help open up the pores and clear the blockages," says Dr. Zeichner. "It can cause irritation over the first few weeks, so ease into using the products." Start application every other day and follow up with a moisturizer to reduce chances of irritation, he suggests. Try: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel. (Related: The Gentle Approach to Treating Stubborn Breakouts)

How to Treat Sweat Pimples

Hoping to treat an existing, juicy sweat pimple? "If you have red, pus-filled pimples, apply a product that contains benzoyl peroxide," says Dr. Zeichner. Think: Tula Go Away Acne Spot Treatment, which you can apply directly on your pimple as a spot treatment at the end of your skin-care routine. "Benzoyl peroxide is perhaps the most effective treatment for [these types of] pimples," he says. "It lowers levels of acne-causing bacteria and reduces inflammation in the skin."

Keep in mind, though, that most of the ingredients that can help fight sweat pimples can be irritating, especially if you have sensitive skin, says Dr. Zeichner. If you're unsure of how to best switch up your routine, consult a dermatologist to find a plan that's suitable for your skin type and concerns. While sweat pimples can be annoying, rest assured that there are ways to combat the breakouts.