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Can Working Out Cause Acne? We Asked A Dermatologist To Weigh In.

Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor
By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.

Image by Susana Ramírez / Stocksy
May 3, 2019

If we look at fitness as a simple equation, working out equals physical exertion, endorphin rushes, and oftentimes sweat—but skin and skin care are not so simple. How our skin looks and behaves depends on a million factors: hormones, hygiene, genetics, aging, what we eat, how much we sleep; the list goes on. Even our microbiome can affect our skin!

But if you're struggling with acne and working out a ton, you may have questioned whether the two were connected. To get to the bottom of it, we asked board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., and here's what she said.

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Can working out trigger acne? If so, why?

"When you exercise, you increase the blood flow to your skin, nourishing your skin with vital nutrients and oxygen. Not only does exercise improve your skin's metabolism, but it is also scientifically proven that you can even begin to reverse the signs of visible aging by working out! Based on recent evidence, not only do people who exercise feel younger; they look younger as well! Incredibly, this is true even if you don't start working out until later in life.

However, I always try to work out in clean skin rather than wearing makeup to work out, because my skin can be acne prone. Working out in makeup can certainly contribute to a breakout. While sweating during a workout boosts our circulation, which is beneficial for our skin's health and glow, our sweat contains ammonia and urea–so if we leave sweat on our skin for too long, this can cause irritation and inflammation, which can trigger breakouts."

Do certain types of exercise trigger acne, or is it any type of exercise?

"Breakouts caused by exercise generally result from the dirt, sweat, and makeup that we have on our skin while we work out. The type of exercise is less relevant than whether you break a sweat and whether you begin your exercise routine with a clean face and end by gently cleansing your face.

As I explain in my book Dirty Looks, gentle cleansing is so much more powerful and healthy for your skin than all of that scrubbing we tend to love! I recommend that my patients use a pH-balanced, gentle cleanser and pat dry. Follow with your typical serum, moisturizer, and, of course, sunscreen. Also, I recommend that my patients either work out with clean skin or with breathable, lightweight, and/or oil-free products to minimize post-workout breakouts."

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How can we reap the benefits of working out without triggering our acne?

"Exercise, while it's got amazing benefits for the skin, does transiently increase your free radical burden and oxidative stress on the skin, so I always recommend that my acne patients use an antioxidant serum AFTER a workout, after cleansing with a gentle cleanser. Also try to avoid sports drinks and energy drinks post-workout, and stick to water or drinks with little to no sugar. The sugar and chemicals in these drinks can cause an imbalance in your healthy gut microbiome (good bugs in your gut), which can, in turn, lead to inflammation, which shows up on your skin as acne."

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Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Bass searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them). She's debunked myths about protein, posture, and the plant-based diet, and has covered everything from the best yoga poses for chronic pain to the future of fitness, recovery, and America's obsession with the Whole30 diet.