Halp! Can You Be Allergic to Your Workout Clothes…Like for Real?

Photo: Getty Images/Scarlet Rodríguez / EyeEm
At any given moment, you can probably find me wearing leggings and a sports bra. Between commuting from the office to a sweat sesh in New York City (and teaching cycling classes and working at the front desk of my university gym at my home base of Philly), I hardly have any time to wear non-sweaty clothes. You feel me?

This is precisely why when I started sprouting itchy, angry rashes after wearing my beloved workout gear, I was horrified. How could the clothing I wear the most betray me like this? Since I can't simply stop wearing my workout clothes (I mean, duh), I needed to get to the root of the issue. After scouring the Internet, I realized I wasn’t alone in my quest to stop itching. So, fellow sensitive skin babes, I did the hard work and got the answers for you—you know, for athleisure's sake.

The first step is to determine whether your skin reaction is from a true allergy (called contact dermatitis) or just an irritation, says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network. “An allergy usually will give you a red, scaly, itchy rash—sometimes it could even be blistering and very painful, and often the rash will last even after you’ve changed,” she says. What's more, often an allergic reaction won’t pop up right away, but instead could happen hours later, or even the next day, and it will often give off poison ivy-esque vibes.

On the other hand, an irritant reaction, however, usually crops up while you’re wearing the clothes. Irritations are typically caused by the combination of sweat and tight-fitting clothing, so, basically every cute workout outfit ever. “When you take it off, it should clear up fairly quickly,” she says. “The irritant can also cause itching, discomfort, and redness, but it isn’t as severe as the allergy or it clears up very quickly.”

But before you check your clothing for allergens, do a once-over of your laundry supplies. Dr. Parikh advises only using free and clear detergents and to steer clear of fabric softeners altogether, because they’re often filled with ingredients that are meant to stick around in clothes, but that can also cause irritation when they park it in your clothes.

If your detergent is free of these things and you're still getting a reactioe, it could be from the clothing itself. Some of the allergens can be found right on the clothing label. Sweat gear itself is often made with synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon, which tend to be less forgiving when it comes to people with sensitive skin. So keep an eye out for more natural fibers.

“A lot of clothing uses formaldehyde resin, so you can actually develop contact allergies to formaldehyde and the resins from it,” says Dr. Parikh. Formaldehyde treatments are used to make clothing water-resistant, wrinkle-free, and they can act as a carrier for dyes and prints. They're usually no big deal, but if you're someone who's sensitive, it can help to know about them, so you can piece together what might be causing your sensitivity.

Finding workout gear without these things can be tricky, because most of it is not clearly labeled on the clothes. But it never hurts to stick with sustainable brands like Girlfriend Collective, Outdoor Voices, and Groceries Apparel. Opt for breathable options too like breezy tees and leggings with mesh inserts. “If you’re prone to sweating, make sure that after your workout, you change out of the clothing,” says Dr. Parikh. “A lot of what makes it worse, it is duration of contact with the skin and the pressure and tightness on the skin.”

You might be saying "well, duh," but oftentimes people end up lounging around in their sweaty workout clothes without really thinking. As much as you'd rather just hop on the subway post-hot yoga sesh, waiting in line to rinse off and change can pay off in the long run. Even a few extra minutes of skin contact with sweaty gear could be what leads to an irritation.

When soothing an existing irritation or allergy, think about moisturizing the skin. "Depending on how severe your reaction, sometimes just moisturizing can help," says Dr. Parikh. "But sometimes you need hydrocortisone or something stronger. You can also try switching clothing or the brand."

Personally, I started bringing natural body wipes and loose-fitting clothes to change into after my workouts and I slather on hydrocortisone cream every night before slipping into bed. While I haven't pinpointed the exact ingredient that makes my skin scream, it seems to keep inflammation at bay in the meantime, and that counts for a lot.

If skin allergies aren't your only concern, here are the doctor-approved tips to help you beat seasonal allergies, too. And we have the how-to when it comes to natural laundry solutions.

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