“Exercise can mean more outdoor activity with pollen, weeds, and grass,” all of which can be eczema-flaring allergens, notes dermatologist Calvin Williams, MD, the medical director of Essential Dermatology Group. “Or, exercise can mean exposure to places like gym mats, where microbes like to colonize, which can also lead to flares.”
More to the point, our bodies naturally produce sweat to help cool our bodies down when we're working out. And some of the contents of sweat (sodium chloride, urea, lactate) can irritate our skin and exacerbate symptoms like itchiness. According to Dr. Williams, “Sweat is one of the most commonly-reported triggers.”
Of course, because fitness is an important component of staying healthy, eliminating exercise altogether isn’t usually a good solution. And it can even be helpful as part of a long-term strategy. “The link between eczema and stress is a clear one, and we know that exercise can reduce stress and anxiety,” explains Dr. Williams. Because of that, he says, working out regularly can even reduce eczema flares for some patients.
How to exercise comfortably with eczema
Instead of swearing off exercise altogether, the best approach is to do a little detective work and troubleshooting to reduce any potential skin irritation.
1. Identify triggers
Dr. Williams recommends that people with eczema should try to figure out exactly what it is about exercise that causes their flares so they can find creative ways to avoid them. For example, wearing long pants when running on an outdoor trail can help avoid the casual leg brushing against a plant.
2. Drink plenty of water
Hydration during exercise is always important, but even more so for those who are exercising with eczema. “Patients who suffer from eczema already have an issue with epidermal dehydration,” says Dr. Williams.
3. Wear natural fabrics
If sweat is an irritant for your eczema, natural fabrics are the way to go. Wearing synthetic materials that trap sweat on the skin can lead to even more irritation. “Natural materials can allow for more air flow and sweat absorption, reducing the prolonged contact of sweat directly on the skin,” says Dr. Williams. Consider cotton, bamboo, or even wool.
4. Clean any mats before using them
Disinfect your workout equipment with antimicrobial spray prior to using it to help prevent flare-inducing infections—don’t trust that it's been properly cleaned by the previous gym-goer.
5. Remove sweat as it forms
“If sweat is an irritant, keeping a clean towel nearby to gently blot sweat can be a way to help reduce itch,” Dr. Williams advises.
6. Manage your chlorine exposure
Chlorine is a known skin irritant—even without eczema. But that doesn’t mean you need to avoid the pool. “Short exposures to chlorine pools can potentially be helpful and have similar effects as a diluted bleach bath,” says Dr. Williams. Just make sure the chlorine levels of the pool are well-maintained, and to get out of your swimsuit and rinse off with fresh clean water as soon as you’re done. “A significant amount of irritation and itching can ensue if the chlorine water is allowed to dry on your skin,” Dr. Williams warns.
7. Protect the skin with a cream
Finally, Dr. Williams suggests using a skin protectant before and after your workout: “Thick emollient creams such as Cetaphil, Cerave, or Eucerin can help to protect the skin barrier.” So lather up, lace up, and get after it.
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