Summer Throwdown Week 6: Healthy Skin
Congratulations on making huge strides to a healthier you during the Summer Throwdown! As someone who is working hard to lose baby weight and get back into shape, I know how tough it can be to stay consistent with healthy eating and exercise habits.
Your skin, hair, and nails may not have gotten the memo about your new workout routine, but don’t let that hold you back from achieving your overall goals! Here are my best tips for healthy skin while you work out this summer and beyond!
Avoid friction blisters
Moving more to get heart-healthy, but the skin on your feet isn’t able to keep up? Don’t let friction blisters stop you in your tracks! Wear synthetic athletic socks designed to “wick away moisture” instead of trapping sweat next to the skin. Make sure your shoes and socks fit well to avoid chronic painful rubbing and excess friction while you work out.
Already have a friction blister? Tense blisters can be very painful to stand or walk on, so I’ll often “prick” the roof of the blister with a small sterile needle or clean nail clippers to express the fluid and “deflate” the blister. Be careful not to rip the roof of the blister off the skin completely; let that layer of dead skin work for you by leaving it in place. The deflated blister roof will act as a “biological dressing” while the skin heals underneath and will protect from infection.
If you want to keep moving (spoiler alert: you do, because you’re committed to your goals!), apply a thin layer of Vaseline over any open areas of the skin and an adhesive bandage or mole skin over the top of the blister to act as a “second skin” and prevent your shoes from continuing to add painful friction to the area. Over time, your skin will get used to the new fitness routine, but if not, that’s a sign you need better fitting shoes and better fitting, synthetic socks. Listen to your skin.
A little bit of callus formation on the soles of the feet can be ok (ask any runner out there on the trails), but they can become thick and painful and most people want to try to avoid them on their hands. Calluses form from repetitive pressure and stress on the skin over time, which is often the case when it comes to many athletic activities: running, walking, biking and weight lifting to name a few.
Wearing gloves during weightlifting can be helpful to avoid friction blisters, as above, and calluses over time on the hands. If you develop calluses, soak the skin and then gently file the dead skin layers down with a clean pumice stone or emery board. Additionally, soften up the thickened skin by using a hand and foot cream containing salicylic acid, urea, or ammonium lactate. (You can find them over the counter: Turn the bottle over and look for one of these under the “active ingredients” list.)
To avoid calluses and nail damage, trim down the nails often and make sure the “toe box” of your shoes fit well with plenty of room.
Avoid “athlete’s foot” and “jock itch”
These problems are due to a type of fungus that can live on the surface of skin and under nails, especially when the conditions are just right: moist and dark. Skin folds, such as the groin, and the pockets between the toes or under damaged nails are the perfect spots for this fungus to take hold and thrive. Once it sets up shop in our skin, it can cause an unsightly rash, itching and discomfort.
To prevent picking up this fungus, wear flip flops or other “shower shoes” in locker rooms or gym showers and around pools, as you can pick it up from the moist surfaces found in gyms. (Bonus: Avoid picking up the virus that causes plantar warts, as well, by wearing these shower shoes.) Don’t share towels and always use a clean towel to wipe away sweat or to dry off after swims or showers.
Those synthetic socks mentioned above to help you avoid friction blisters are also helpful in wicking away extra moisture as you work out, and believe it or not, athletic “underwear,” shorts, yoga pants, or other athletic clothing made of synthetic fibers are designed to work similarly and can be helpful. Try to change out of your sweaty gym clothes right after working out, wash them after each use and make sure they are dried before putting them back on. In other words, don’t let them fester in your dark, damp gym bag for a week (you know who you are…).
If you’ve already got a scaly, red, itchy rash in these areas, don’t worry — there’s hope! Start with cleaning the area gently with soap and water in the shower then immediately after bathing, dry the areas thoroughly with a towel or a hair dryer with a no-heat setting and apply an over the counter anti-fungal cream or spray. If that doesn’t do the trick, make an appointment with your dermatologist or primary care doctor to help with the next step of treatment.
Avoid acne breakouts
My preference is to work out without make-up and without sweatbands that can rub against the skin on the forehead and temple areas, which can contribute to clogged pores. If you’re a biker, the same problem can occur under helmets. But — wear your helmet! I can fix your acne if we need to, but I can’t fix your head injury. Safety first!
Additionally, an acne-like skin eruption called folliculitis can affect athletes and may be associated with a bacterial infection. Wash your face at least daily and no more than 2-3 times per day. Avoid using scrubs, washcloths or those motorized brushes that promise to “clean out the pores.” It’s counterintuitive, but less really is more when it comes to taking care of acne-prone skin. I like benzoyl peroxide cleansers for the face, shoulders, back and chest — the areas most likely to breakout — but wash these areas while in the shower so you can rinse the cleanser off the skin completely, as it may bleach your towels and clothes.
If your skin is too sensitive for benzoyl peroxide, try an acne wash with salicylic acid or alternate with an even gentler cleanser, such as Cetaphil or CeraVe facial wash. If your skin is really acne-prone, don’t let that be an excuse to stop your workouts, it may be time to see your dermatologist to discuss some other helpful options.
Wear hats, sunglasses, sun-protective clothing (think surf shirts or rash guards). Work out during non-peak sun hours. And don’t forget your sunscreen. Grab a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen and re-apply to sun-exposed areas every 1-2 hours, especially after swimming and sweating.
Avoid bug bites
If hiking around scenic areas is your path to fitness nirvana, then beware the bugs. Not only can they transmit diseases, they can also leave you with itchy, red bumps that when scratched can become infected or leave marks and scars on the skin. Covering the skin with layers of clothing can be helpful, but it’s not always a viable strategy depending on the weather conditions and your fitness plans. An insect repellent with 20% or more DEET is your best bet for most effectively keeping away unwanted pests, including mosquitoes and other bugs, like ticks.
This repellant has a great safety rating (really!), and the higher the percentage of DEET, the longer it will last. However, no need to go with any formulation containing over 50% DEET. If you’re exercising with children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using insect repellents containing 30% DEET or less, and avoid using it on infants less than 2 months old.
Best practice is to apply your sunscreen first and then after that dries, apply the bug spray on top to exposed skin only. Do not bother with the combination sunscreen-insect repellent products.
Additionally, you can treat your clothing (not your skin) with permethrin-containing products to help keep the bugs away if you want to avoid putting chemicals directly on the skin. Looking to try one of the more natural bug repellent ingredients? Oil of eucalyptus (40%) has been shown to be equal to DEET at 7-15% concentrations. It does not protect against ticks, and the EPA does not recommend using it in kids under the age of 3 years. The bracelets and necklaces that promise to keep the bugs away? You can do better when it comes to repelling bugs, and when it comes to fashion. Trust me.
Avoid hair damage, especially when swimming
Swimming is great for the heart, lungs, and muscles while being easy on the joints. That said, exposure to pool water can be damaging to the hair. To avoid developing brittle, damaged hair while swimming, rinse the hair prior to getting into the pool with plain water to wet it and wear a swim cap to help minimize contact with chemicals in the pool.
Rinse the hair out again with regular water as soon as you get out of the pool, then hit the showers. Wash your hair with a shampoo made especially for swimmers to rid the hair of excess chemicals followed by application of a thick conditioner to smooth and seal the hair’s cuticle. Do not bother with combination shampoo/conditioner/body wash products, even if they are convenient in theory.
The finer, more color-treated, heat or chemically styled your hair is, the more it will be susceptible to damage from chemicals in pool water. Be good to your locks après swim and avoid using excessive heat to style the hair, tight braids, buns, or ponytails.
Avoid dry, cracked, itchy skin
Most athletic activities, as well as the frequent post-workout showers that come with them, can result in stripping the natural oils off the skin and increased damage to the skin barrier over time. This results in dry, itchy and cracked, or flaky skin. No matter how much you rehydrate by drinking water — a good practice when exercising — it just won’t replace the moisture in the skin. You really have to hydrate the skin from the outside by frequently applying a moisturizer over the surface of your skin.
I prefer thicker creams over lotions to get a bigger bang for your moisturizing buck. A great time to apply your moisturizer is right after your shower or bath… just try to limit bathing to 5-10 minutes, and avoid hot showers. Hey, no one said this fitness thing was going to be easy. As usual, too much of a good thing (in this case: long, hot showers) can actually worsen dry skin and brittle hair. So, the secret of healthy skin, hair and nails is just like everything in life: moderation.
Good luck with your fitness challenge – I’m right there with you, committed to my goals! Healthy skin for the win!
Jennifer M. Gardner is an assistant professor in the Division of Dermatology. She is a collaborating member of the Center for One Health Research (COHR).