You’ve got your weekly routine down pat—you meal prep on Sundays, crush all your weekly workout classes (which you thoughtfully book in advance) and set aside time for a well-deserved brunch with pals on the weekend. You’re killing it. Then bam: Just when you feel like you have everything under control, you peek through the reflection in the mirror to find a giant zit starring you back in the face.
Hey, it happens to the best of us.
But while sweat sessions might make you more prone to pimples, but there are still things you can do daily, both before, during and after class to banish breakouts. We asked a top derm to let us in on his seven skin secrets for avid exercisers.
Wash your hands frequently—especially after working out
You’ve been taught from day one to wash your hands after doing anything germ-causing—from leaving the bathroom to after coming inside from a long day of being outdoors. So, naturally, you should do the same after a sweat sesh that likely involves touching exercise equipment, palming the floor for pushups or grasping a stationary bike’s handles.
“So many people use the same exercise machines everyday, which spreads an incredible amount of germs and bacteria to your face causing acne and even infection,” says Joel Schlessinger, M.D., Board Certified Dermatologist and RealSelf Advisor. “If you have to wipe sweat off, use a towel—preferably a clean one you brought from home—or your sleeve,” he says. “Mark it with an X or your initials on one side that you designate as the side that touches equipment and not your face.” And remember: Those little squirt-and-go hand sanitizers scattered around a gym are convenient, but they don’t even close close to doing the job of soap and water.
Shower right after you exercise—or as soon as you can
Good for you for mustering up a lot of sweat during your workouts. But during the process of perspiration, all that sweat becomes easily trapped inside the tight-knit clothes you’re wearing, which leads to acne and irritation. “Showering after a workout is ideal because it leaves less time for bacteria to settle and grow on your skin,” says Dr. Schlessinger.
He recommends washing both your face and body with an antibacterial wash, focusing on any areas where your skin touched the exercise equipment or anywhere you’re prone to breakouts (like your face, chest and back). “I always recommend CLn products to my patients who exercise frequently because they contain bleach, a natural antibacterial agent that eliminates germs and bacteria without the worsening antibiotic resistance.”
If showering post-workout isn’t an option, change out of your exercise clothes as soon as you can. Additionally, if you’re acne-prone and can’t wash your face right away, keep cleansing wipes in your gym bag to eliminate oil and acne-causing bacteria.
Wear sunscreen everyday—rain or shine
You know to lather on the SPF when going for a run in the blistering summer heat, but it’s equally important to use sunscreen in the fall and winter months or year-round on a cloudy or rainy day. “Not wearing sunscreen is the cardinal skincare sin and something that will impact your skin health more than any single other thing you do,” says Dr. Schlessinger. He recommends wearing a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day. Why not just leap for the 70 or 80 SPF to be even safer? “Anything higher than SPF 50 doesn’t provide much additional protection, so those SPF 100 products are a false sense of security and a ploy to get you to spend more.”
It’s also important to read your labels before you buy, as SPF only pertains to UVB rays, not UVA, both can cause skin cancer. His personal favorite is EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46 ($35, lovelyskin.com). “It’s lightweight, oil-free formula won’t clog pores or irritate sensitive skin.
Remember: Sunscreen is only effective if you apply enough to protect yourself, so a good rule of thumb is to apply a nickel-size amount to the face and two tablespoons (about enough to fill a shot glass) to the body. Reapply at least every two hours for regular sunscreen and every 40 to 80 minutes for water-resistant brands. These should be reapplied often, especially while swimming, sweating or immediately after drying off with a towel.
Never share another person’s makeup (even your bestie!)
It may seem harmless—a little mascara before a night out or a lipstick touch-up in the bathroom—but swapping makeup with friends is just as bad as testing out makeup at Sephora sans throw-away applicators. “Everyone has bacteria that sits on their skin’s surface, so sharing mascara, eyeshadow or eyeliner can spread this bacteria and cause pink eye or other infections and sharing lipstick, lip gloss or lip balm can lead to a cold sore,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “And whatever you do, be sure not to share makeup brushes, as daily application transfers a ton of bacteria onto the brush that could be hazardous to your health—namely conjunctivitis, staph, strep and E. coli infections to name a few. Gross. If you’re really feeling your bestie’s lip color or bronzer, consider buying your own instead.
Never fall asleep with your makeup on
It totally happens to the best of us, but skipping a quick face rinse before bed is one of the worst things we can do for our skin. Not only can it lead to the spread of bacteria and aggravate acne, but it can also cause skin infections like rosacea.
“Foundation is usually pretty thick so it clogs pores when left on the skin over night and concealer—especially if you’re using it to cover up existing acne—can only exacerbate breakouts,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “In addition, both collect free radicals and pollutants throughout the day, which speed up the aging process.” Bottom line: Remove your makeup and wash your face every night before bed. If you have trouble remembering, keep some wipes on your nightstand to serve as a gentle reminder.
Wash your sheets often (enough)
Especially if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, you should be washing your sheets at least once a week to avoid transferring bacteria, oils and other impurities from your day onto your pillowcase and then sleeping on it the following night (and the next, and the next). “It’s OK to flip your pillow over and sleep on the other side when it’s not laundry day, but if you notice constant breakouts it’s best to buy a few spare pillowcases to switch in and out in the interim,” says Dr. Schlessinger.
(Try) cutting regular milk out of your diet
We know, we know (we know!)—easier said than done. But while milk and dairy seem can be great sources of nutrients, they can also cause acne. “Cow’s milk actually contains natural hormones that cause an overproduction of oil, leading to clogged pores and acne flare-ups,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “And skim milk has even more hormones than regular milk due to the lack of fat, which slightly decreases hormone levels in regular milk.”
Stay away from soy milk, which contains phytoestrogens, or plant hormones, and instead sip almond milk to combat your acne. It’s free of the hormones, tastes great and you might even see an improvement in your acne after you switch to it!