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How to Prevent and Treat Fitness-related Skin Infections

You love your gym equipment. But when your gym equipment doesn’t love you back, the results can be itchy, irritating, and downright gross. Here’s what to do when you’re dealing with a skin infection.

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How to Prevent and Treat Fitness-Related Skin Infections
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All that time at the gym might be good for your muscles, but your regimen can also negatively impact the skin. Here are some of the more common conditions that lifters encounter, plus the best measures for preventing and treating each.

Jock itch

Jock itch is a fungal infection that leaves an itchy, red rash with slightly raised bumps. It’s concentrated primarily in the groin area, and the male anatomy, with its increased surface area and skin folds make it easy to contract. Jock itch is caused by excessive moisture and sweating in poorly ventilated areas—which explains why the buttocks, groin, and thighs are a prime target.

Prevent: Shower immediately after working out, and scrub the groin, thighs, and buttocks with warm water and soap. Wash your underwear and gym shorts as soon as possible, and never re-wear them until they are clean. Same goes for your swimsuit. Cotton fabrics are least likely to invite the condition, since they often absorb moisture and allow it to evaporate. Or get specially engineered moisture-wicking underwear. To protect the skin, you can apply a zinc-oxide cream in the area, targeting skin folds, or sprinkle antifungal powder in the underwear to absorb moisture and thwart infection. Lastly, never share bathing or exercise towels with others.

Treat: If you have jock itch, start by wearing 100% cotton underwear, and keep the area dry with antifungal powder and minimal strain. Shower twice a day, washing the area with warm water and soap. Apply an antifungal cream to the affected area until clear—it should only take a couple days. Discontinue use of antifungal cream after the infection goes away. Replace with zinc oxide cream if you wish to employ preventative measures.

Athlete's foot

Like jock itch, athlete’s foot is a fungal infection caused by excessive sweating and moisture, little-to-no ventilation and poor hygiene—or by walking barefoot in locker rooms. The skin on the feet can itch, burn, peel, or crack, usually around the toes and on the soles. Left untreated, athlete’s foot can quickly spread to the toenails.

Prevent: Be aware of the moisture in your socks and shoes. If you’re sitting at your desk for long periods, take your shoes off to let the socks and feet breathe. Don’t wear the same pair of shoes constantly, especially following a workout; let the shoes air out and dry. Sprinkle an anti-fungal powder in the socks and shoes to minimize infection. Avoid walking barefoot in the gym locker room, showers, sauna, and around the pool. Wear 100% cotton socks, and never re-wear dirty socks. Do not share toenail clippers with anyone.

Treat: Many people choose to soak infected feet in a vinegar-water solution (1:4 ratio). You can do this in addition to an anti-fungal cream application. Wash the feet twice daily with soap and water, and change socks frequently. Avoid wearing sandals until the condition has healed.

Acne

The pores in the skin get clogged with sweat, grime, and bacteria. This can result in a single pimple or one-off breakouts, as well as chronic or cystic (deep-seeded) acne.

Prevent: The best thing you can do for your skin is to cleanse, exfoliate, and moisturize regularly. And not just the face: You can do this on the entire body. Wash everywhere with soap (or cleanser, on the face). Then, twice a week, follow this with a gentle exfoliating bar soap for the body and a facial exfoliant for your mug. This process will clean the excess grime and oil that has settled in the pores, and will remove dead skin cells that also can clog pores. Then, moisturize the face and lotion the body to nourish the skin and keep it from drying out. Whenever you shave, be sure to follow proper hygiene—warm water to start, clean razors, clean water to close pores after the shave, and a post-shave lotion or gel—to prevent pores from getting clogged and ingrown hairs from forming. Diets high in added sugar and with excess dairy will often lead to clogged pores.

Hormone changes can also lead to breakouts. If you take any such supplements for your workout regimen—as well as protein supplements—be warned that this is often excreted through the pores when you sweat, and can clog them from within. So, always shower as soon as possible after a workout, and do not re-wear a shirt, cap, or headband without first washing it.

Treat: Don’t pop anything that isn’t a whitehead. Treat the infected area with an alcohol-free witch hazel toner to dry out the acne without disrupting the skin’s pH levels. Drink plenty of water, and get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Put the aforementioned preventative skin-clearing regimen to work—to avoid further clogging and aggravation—and never shave over pimples with a razor. They should subside or come to head within a couple days. Consult with a dermatologist, and consider adjusting your diet.

Ringworm, folliculitis, plantar warts, and more

While many other rashes and infections vary in severity, they are similarly acquired—by touching sweaty, unwashed equipment, mats, towels, or by walking barefoot in communal spaces.

Prevent: Wipe down equipment with the gym’s disinfecting towelettes before use. (And after use, to spare the next person of your germs.) Wash hands mid-workout, and swap out your towel halfway through for a clean one. (Then use another clean one when you shower.) Never share towels, and never walk barefoot in the gym, even in the private changing and bathing spaces—nay, especially in those spaces.

Treat: We won’t get into the specifics of the many other kinds of infections out there. See your dermatologist for professional, tailored advice on any conditions more severe than jock itch, athlete’s foot, or acne.

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