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Ask A Dermatologist: How Does Exercise Affect Your Skin?

To quote the noughties classic Legally Blonde, “exercise gives you endorphins.” Elle Woods was right about that, but exercise does much more besides. It keeps you healthy, can help clear your mind and balances hormone levels.

Whether you’re a certified gym bunny, a casual swimmer or just a fan of the #hotgirlwalk, exercising in any way shape or form is good for the mind, body and soul – but what about your skin? Today on The Dose, we take a look at the effects exercise has on your skin, and give you our top pre and post-workout skincare tips.

Skincare for the gym

While we love to imagine that getting plenty of exercise keeps our skin clear, that isn’t always the case. Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunnigham, explains that “breakouts can be caused by excessive sweating and build-up of oil, dirt and bacteria which can cause or worsen acne.” 

This means that if you’re exercising regularly and not cleansing thoroughly afterwards, oil may build up and lead to tell-tale spots. Acne on your forehead can also be caused by exercising regularly, getting sweaty, and a build-up of oil in the hairline. 

Dr Malvina also suggests that acne mechanica (a type of acne caused by friction and pressure on the skin) is commonly associated with exercise, “the pilosebaceous unit – the hair follicle and its accompanying oil gland unit that are implicated in acne formation. Irritation to the pilosebaceous follicles can lead to comedo (whitehead or a blackhead) formation.”

Skincare for swimming

Lido, leisure centre or lake, it’s a good idea to prep your skin beforehand. An easy way to protect the delicate skin on your face is with an occlusive moisturiser for a protective layer on your skin – some light slugging is fine here! Most moisturisers have occlusive properties – the thicker the texture of your moisturiser, the more occlusive it is. Sunscreen is non-negotiable, and you’ll need to reapply the factor 30 throughout the day to ensure you don’t expose your skin to the sun unprotected

An easy way to protect the delicate skin on your face is with an occlusive moisturiser for a protective layer on your skin – the thicker the texture of your moisturiser, the more occlusive it is.

In addition to your post-swim shower, it’s also a good idea to pack some skincare minis into your gym bag – these can be refilled from your full-size favourites over and over again. Remember, cleansing is the best thing you can do for your skin. It soothes and rinses away any chemicals, pollutants or salt.

Chlorine can have a big effect on your skin too. Great for keeping public pools clean, not so great for your skin – it strips away all-important moisture. If you’ve ever felt dry and itchy after taking a dip, now you know why. The best thing you can do is to wash immediately after swimming in a chlorinated pool. Follow up with a moisturising body lotion and your skin should be fine.

The same advice applies to salt water. While it’s got pros – it cleans wounds and speeds up healing, it’s also got cons – it dehydrates the skin. Prepare your skin beforehand with an occlusive moisturiser, generously and regularly apply sunscreen, and follow up with a thorough cleanse afterwards. 

Chlorinated water and natural salt water can also have an effect on your hair and scalp. It’s best to wet your hair before you get into a pool (or any other body of water) as this prevents further water absorption (a swimming cap helps too!) and wash it well afterwards.

Skincare for outdoor exercising

If you’re running around your local park, hiking up a hill or going for a walk around the block, there’s nothing like the great outdoors. We’ve previously touched on how important green spaces are to our mental health, and the same goes for our skin. 

Dr Malvina explains “Spending time outside is a natural stress and anxiety reliever. Stress causes a chemical response in our bodies which leads to skin inflammation and sensitivity, it also triggers issues like acne, rosacea or eczema and slows down the skin’s natural ability to heal itself. Meaning skin issues are prolonged which leads to increased stress. Therefore, the less stress you have the happier your skin will be – so get outside in nature as much as you can.”

Fitness blogger Emily Williams also has practical advice for exercising outdoors: “When I know I’ll be sweating a lot I’ll always remove my makeup. I’ll cleanse my face before a run and I’ll always wear factor SPF 50. Then I shower straight after, cleanse and moisturise.”

“Stress causes a chemical response in our bodies which leads to skin inflammation and sensitivity. The less stress you have the happier your skin will be – so get outside in nature as much as you can.”

Dr Malvina Cunningham

Exercising outdoors means you’re getting a good dose of much-needed sunlight exposure, enabling your body to produce vitamin D. It’s essential for us to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate and helps to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Ensure you protect your skin with a hat and regular sunscreen application and get a good post-workout routine. 

Dr Malvina’s workout routine tips:

Cleanse before exercising – Don’t rely on your post-workout shower to take makeup off – remove it with a gentle cleanser before exercising. Sweat and a high body temperature can lead to your pores becoming blocked by particles of makeup, which in turn can lead to breakouts.

Let your skin breathe – Wearing tight-fitting clothes, especially anything elastic or synthetic that doesn’t let water evaporate, can lead to body acne too. Anything that rubs and is uncomfortable puts pressure on the skin and can lead to irritation. 

Keep it clean – Wash your exercise gear after each session, especially since bacteria clings more to synthetic fibres. Workout clothes are more likely to smell and transfer bacteria to your skin.

Embrace the headband – If you’re prone to acne in your hairline, the humble headband offers a solution. Keeping your hair off your face avoids it from getting so sweaty and potentially stops the build-up of oil in your pores.

Cleanse after exercising – Most of us shower immediately after exercising, but do we always give our faces the attention they deserve? Possibly not. Cleanse your face separately from your body to get rid of excess sweat and prevent a build-up of oils and bacteria.

Step out of the shower and give yourself a pat on the back, doesn’t moving your body – and having your best skin – just feel so good? Your skin goes through a lot when you exercise, so make sure you’re looking after it properly, before, during and after. Invest in a good routine and stay consistent. Remember the essentials, and keep your skin in great shape.

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