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Ask an expert: Does working out help acne?

Working out promotes a healthy body and, therefore, healthy skin. But you still need to wash your face!

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Curology Team
Jan 04, 2023 · 5 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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  3. > Ask an expert: Does working out help acne?

Exercise can increase blood flow in the body, prevent disease, and reduce stress, but does working out help acne? It depends. Some aspects of exercise, like sweating, may even contribute to acne. Still, exercising is important for your overall health, including your skin’s health. We can explain how to take good care of your skin before, during, and after workouts. 

Working out improves overall health

According to the Centers for Disease Control, exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body. Exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers.¹ The health benefits of exercise spurred the step-tracking movement—and research backs this up. The magic number of 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day was determined to reduce the risk of mortality, although this can vary a bit depending on a variety of factors.² 

“Regular physical activity benefits not only our physical health but also our mental health,” Curology’s Corinne Currier, PA-C, says. “From weight loss and reduced risk of chronic health conditions to improved brain activity and mood, regular physical activity is one of the best ways to enhance your overall health.” 

The bottom line: The benefits of exercise are plenty!

Does a lack of exercise cause acne?

It doesn’t appear that working out directly contributes to acne, but lounging in sweaty clothes, not rinsing off after exercise, sharing equipment, and certain chemicals—such as chlorine—may contribute to breakouts.

“Acne is best treated with a multi-faceted approach,” Currier says. “Along with treating the skin topically, regular physical activity can help to reduce breakouts by decreasing and controlling acne triggers. Some triggers include stress and hormones. Regular physical activity also boosts our immune systems, which can assist our bodies in responding quickly and effectively to breakouts.”

Whether or not lifting weights or running helps with acne, you still need to take care of your skin. That means a daily skincare routine that includes cleansing, moisturizing, treating, and protecting. Use a treatment cream at night and protect your skin with a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen by day.

Man sweating after working out

Here’s how to prevent acne when working out

Although exercise is undeniably good for you, sweating can contribute to a buildup of oil, dirt, and acne-causing bacteria on your skin. And that can lead to acne.³

Here’s what Currier has to say: “Although exercising and sweating are not direct causes of acne, at times, the moisture produced by sweating can create an environment that encourages bacterial growth. Friction from tight-fitting sports gear can also make the skin more prone to breakouts. This can easily be addressed by showering or rinsing your face/neck with lukewarm water after any physical activity and by wearing loose-fitting and moisture-wicking clothes. It is also helpful to avoid touching your face while working out, especially if using gym equipment.”

Here are a few tips to try to avoid seeing a few pimples pop up after a day at the gym: 

  1. Remove your makeup. Use an oil-free makeup remover or try micellar water (like the Curology Micellar Makeup Remover) to gently lift away makeup.

  2. Pull back your hair. If your hair is prone to dangling in your face when it gets sweaty, hold it back with a scrunchy during your workout.

  3. Pack your gym bag with clean clothes. Avoid re-wearing sweaty shirts and shorts. Dirt and oil on unwashed clothing can get onto your skin and contribute to body acne. You’ll also want to pack clean clothes to change into following your workout.

  4. Wear loose-fitting workout clothes. Save fashion for after working out—wear loose-fitting clothes to avoid friction which can irritate your skin and lead to unwanted breakouts.

  5. Use a clean towel to wipe off sweat. During your workout, gently wipe your brow using a fresh towel. 

  6. Use what’s yours, and limit sharing. Avoid sharing helmets or other athletic gear—even between friends. It’s okay to be a little selfish every now and again if it means avoiding spreading dirt and bacteria. 

  7. Wipe down the bench or mat. When moving from one piece of equipment to another, it’s good to start with a clean slate. Wipe down equipment, weights, and machines before and after using them. 

  8. Shower off. If you can’t shower right away, at least rinse your face following your workout. 

If you forget all about tips 1-7, you can still help prevent acne by simply rinsing off after your workout. It’s even better if you can shower—especially if you’re prone to breakouts—but don’t forget to wash your face. Use a mild, oil-free, non-comedogenic cleanser and pat your skin dry for the ultimate body care routine

Man washing his face in bathroom sink

What are the potential contributing factors of acne?

Even when doing everything right, there’s still a chance you can get acne. Acne forms when dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria plug hair follicles—tiny pores in the skin’s surface—and trigger an inflammatory response.

The frequency, severity, and likelihood of developing acne depend on several factors. Here are some of the more common contributing factors to clogged pores:

  • Hormone fluctuations. Androgens can increase the size of oil glands and increase sebum production.⁴ This increases the likelihood of getting acne, which is why it’s common during hormonal events like puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.

  • Diet. Certain foods can lead to breakouts. Research shows that dairy and simple carbohydrates may contribute to pimples, blackheads, and other acne lesions.⁵

  • Stress. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), stress doesn’t directly cause acne, but it can worsen the severity of breakouts.⁶ Finding techniques to reduce your stress levels can improve your overall wellness in addition to giving you clearer skin.

For some people, workouts and acne don’t get along

The bottom line: Working out increases sweat and the moisture from sweat may encourage bacterial growth that contributes to acne. Depending on your activity of choice, friction from constrictive clothing on areas like the back or shoulders makes acne breakouts more likely. That doesn’t mean you should stop working out. Instead, consult with a dermatology provider to create a skincare regime that works for your unique skin.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Curology’s licensed dermatology providers can help create a personalized treatment plan with a custom prescription acne formula and board-certified dermatologist-designed products for acne treatment (subject to consultation). 

FAQs

Does a lack of exercise cause acne?

It doesn’t appear that working out directly contributes to acne, but lounging in sweaty clothes, not rinsing off after exercise, sharing equipment, and certain chemicals—such as chlorine—may contribute to breakouts.

What are potential contributing factors of acne?

Acne forms when dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria plug hair follicles—tiny pores in the skin’s surface—and trigger an inflammatory response. Here are some of the more common contributing factors to clogged pores:

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Centers for Disease Control. Benefits of Physical Activity. (n.d.).

  2. Paluch, A.E., et al. Daily steps and all-cause mortality: A meta-analysis of 15 international cohorts.The Lancet. (2022 March 1). 

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Is your workout causing your acne? (n.d.).

  4. Elsaie ML. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update.Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2016 September 2).

  5. American Academy of Dermatology. Can the right diet get rid of acne? (n.d.).

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Acne: Who gets and causes. (n.d.).

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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