If you often find that you’re breaking out in spots after working out, or after a busy commute on a hot day, you’re not alone.
With 85% of Australians experiencing acne at some point in their life, it's no surprise that many people struggle with increased breakouts after exercising . That doesn't make it any less frustrating when those pesky pimples crop up after a long day out or session in the gym.
The great news is, there are easy things you can do to help clear out pimples and prevent new ones from making themselves known.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about sweat-induced spots, including what causes them (spoiler: it's not technically sweat) and the one ingredient that will banish them from returning.
Does sweat cause acne?
In short: it’s complicated. See, sweat itself doesn’t actually cause acne, however, it’s true that pimples can be exacerbated by excessive sweating.
Acne can be caused by a multitude of things — hormonal changes, certain medications, stress, and much more — and it occurs when there is excess sebum getting into the tiny follicles on your face, leading to whiteheads or pustules, which are filled with pus.
When you engage in activities where you’re excessively sweating, this creates more sebum and more opportunity for this oil to get trapped. In turn, this leads to more pimples.
Why do I get pimples when I sweat?
Let’s break down exactly what happens when you get pimples after sweating.
There are 2 types of glands: eccrine sweat glands and sebaceous glands . The former is known simply as sweat glands, which produce the watery substance we recognise as sweat.
The latter produces sebum, an oily substance you often find in the T-zone of your face. Whilst the salt from your sweat glands doesn’t cause acne, it can aggravate the sebaceous glands, leading to clogged pores and pimples.
The combination of salty sweat, mixing with the dirt, grime, and potential makeup, together with the heat and friction from working out can be a nightmare for your skin — and the reason you might see more pimples cropping up.
What do sweat pimples look like?
There are many different types of pimples, so it’s helpful to know what sweat pimples look like so you know how to treat them effectively.
Acne mechanica is the medical term for acne that occurs due to rubbing or friction, as well as sweating, all of which often happens when exercising . This can also occur when out sightseeing on a hot summer's day, for example, when backpack straps, tight clothing or hats are rubbing against your skin.
Sweat acne vs heat rash bumps
It’s important to spot the difference between acne and heat rash (medically known as miliaria rubra) because the treatment differs.
While acne isn't solely caused by sweat, you’ll likely see acne breakouts form or get worse from sweat lingering and mixing with dirt and oils. These are often pustules and papules, and you may also notice the skin surrounding the area get inflamed and irritated by the friction.
Heat rash bumps are more grouped, red and raised in appearance, as well as often being itchy. They also tend to be slightly less raised and smaller than sweat pimples.
Unlike sweat pimples, heat rash often needs to be treated with cold compresses and soothing creams.
Are sweat pimples different from regular acne?
Technically yes, sweat pimples and regular acne can be different in that they can present slightly differently. However, with sweat pimples, there's always an element of acne or clogged pores present already — even if you hadn't noticed the breakouts yet.
If you have acne-prone skin, sweat can exacerbate your existing breakouts, which can include pustules (solid bumps with no pus) and papules (pus-filled spots).
Whereas, if you don’t have acne-prone skin and yet are experiencing breakouts after working out, you might find that these areas are more inflamed and red than your typical breakout. This is mostly due to the combination of sweat and friction.
The trick is to not have sweat on your skin for long. For example, if you have a big workout session and then wait until you're home to shower, that sweat cools off and can clog pores. Instead, find out if there’s a shower you can use at the gym as soon as you’re done working out and change into a fresh set of clothes.
Where are sweat acne breakouts most common?
When it comes to the areas most prone to breakouts, it’s likely going to be where you naturally sweat the most, which includes the forehead, back and chest.
Although those are the most common, you can get sweat acne in a whole host of places. This might include under the breasts, the groin area, and of course the armpits, where sweat is a given. Basically, anywhere where the skin folds and sweat can get trapped is a possibility for acne.
How to get rid of sweat pimples
Just because working out might increase your pimples, doesn’t mean you should stop doing it. There are just a few tips to stick with to treat sweat pimples.
First things first, you should always treat your pimples with kindness — and we mean it. The worst possible thing you can do to any breakout is aggravate it further with harsh soaps and scrubs. Step away from the physical exfoliant.
Let’s start with pimples on your face. The key here is to ensure you’re removing all of your makeup using a gentle cleanser so nothing is clogging your pores. You might want to double cleanse (the clue is in the name here, it means to cleanse twice) using an acid formula a few times a week.
Software's Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash is excellent for exfoliating the skin to remove dead skin cells, unclogging pores and targeting acne-causing bacteria.
Sweat pimples on the chest and back can be a little trickier, but most of the same rules apply. It can be handy to keep a bottle of salicylic wash in your shower so that it becomes a habit to cleanse with.
Thanks to its gentle formula, Software’s Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash can be used on sensitive skin types, on the face, shoulders, chest and back. When used on the body, most skin types can tolerate it every day or every other day.
How to prevent acne from sweating
Prevention is key when it comes to problem skin and you'll be happy to know that preventing acne after sweating isn’t complicated, though it does take consistency. Here's how to expertly prevent sweat pimples:
Shower as soon as possible after working out
Jump in that shower as soon as you can after exercising or a long day to wash away sweat, grime and dirt build-up, and minimise the risk of clogged pores.
The superhero for getting rid of breakouts and minimising new spots forming is salicylic acid. Not only can it help to reduce the existing breakouts, but it can also absolutely work as a prevention tool. Practising proper hygiene can help immensely with the problem.
Depending on your skin type — oily and acne-prone can use it more frequently and dry skin types less frequently — use a salicylic acid wash on your face and body as soon as you can after working out, targeting areas where you're more prone to spots.
Wash your sheets and pillowcases regularly
Another easy but super effective prevention tool is to regularly wash your bedsheets, pillowcases and clothes.
Wear your workout gear once before throwing it into the laundry, keep on top of washing your bed sheets every week (we know it’s a pain but it’s worth it), and wash your pillowcases regularly—this might even be more than once a week if you're particularly predisposed to breakouts.
Avoid comedogenic makeup at the gym
Makeup at the gym can be a recipe for an acne party, especially if you have breakout-prone skin. If you can, it’s best to avoid makeup when working out and don't forget to wash your face gently afterwards to remove any leftover sweat and dirt.
If you really can’t face working out without some makeup on, look for non-comedogenic products, which means non-pore clogging. Things like tinted moisturiser can lead to less clogging when compared with a full-coverage foundation.
Another tip is to make sure you’re on top of cleansing your makeup brushes, especially if you’re schlepping them around to the gym and work; lots of acne-causing bacteria can harbour on those brushes.
Clothing choice matters
Consider wearing loose-fitting clothes that are made from cotton to prevent future breakouts and avoid trapped sweat.
If you're still struggling with sweat pimples, excess oil, and body acne, it's best to get personalised advice from a board-certified dermatologist or skin expert who can help you get to the root cause and provide further treatments to prevent breakouts.
With Software's prescription acne treatment, we connect you with an experienced health practitioner who will review your skin and prescribe a custom formula that works for your specific skincare concerns. Get started with our treatment and finally say goodbye to sweat pimples.
Image credit: Getty Images
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