I Caught a Skin Fungus From Working Out, so I Asked Derms How You Can Avoid Living My Nightmare

Listen up, sweat fanatics: I'm about to tell a tale about a very sexy topical topic—skin fungus. Early this summer, a small population of cream-colored splotches cropped on my chest and upper back, slightly paler than the rest of my body. I responded with what was more or less a shrug. Hey! I live in the great concrete jungle of NYC, where the new species I'm exposed to tend to be more of the pizza rat variety. And since my dermis' new inhabitants didn't itch or anything, I kinda just figured: "Eh."

Flash forward a few months to when my family and I took a trip to the seaside of Massachusetts where I had the first occasion of the summer season to wear a bathing suit. As I headed to the shore with my younger sister, she took one look at my back and said, "Oh, I've seen that before. It's a fungus." And that was enough: I promptly got to my dermatologist's office. There, I learned that, A) my fungus is called "tinea versicolor," and B) people like me—who spend a good portion of their lives in a sweat-soaked sports bra—are particularly susceptible. (The fungus thrives in damp conditions.)

"Oh, I've seen that before. It's a fungus."

Even though my derm prescribed me a special foam cleanser to rid my body of the stuff, I still had a ton of lingering queries about skin fungi. Like, what causes an outbreak? Are there different types besides tinea versicolor? Do they actually do your health any harm? To get some answers, I spoke with a few complexion experts. Below, they answer every question an active girl never knew she had about...skin 'shrooms.

types of skin fungus
Photo: Stocksy/Guille Faingold

Everything you need to know about skin fungus

First up: What causes the stuff?  Paul Cellura, MD, a dermatologist at New York City's Tribeca Skin Care, tells me that fungal conditions appear on your skin for two different reasons. "Some of these fungi live naturally on our skin (as part of our normal skin flora), but may overgrow in certain scenarios, causing skin disease. Other times, fungi may be present in our surrounding environments and can infect the skin through direct contact, again leading to skin disease."

In addition, Susan Bard, MD of Manhattan Dermatology Specialists says that those with weaker immune systems—like babies, the elderly, diabetics, HIV patients,  and those with autoimmune diseases are less able to combat pathogenic fungi. 

So what types exist and how do you treat them? To give your skin the best chance to be fungus-free, dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD, founder of Visha Skincare in Tennessee recommends adding a full-body exfoliator to your beauty routine. Bonus points if it happens to contain anti-fungal or antimicrobial superstars like tea tree oil or zinc (try The Body Shop Tea Tree Squeaky Clean Scrub, $13). "Zinc is necessary for collagen synthesis, and when deficient, the keratin in the skin can be more sticky—resulting in more clogged pores," she explains. That's because fungus feeds on oil, so clogged pores are pretty much Thanksgiving dinner for the stuff.

Like any health concern, you should definitely consult your MD about the best course of treatment for your particular skin condition, but below the derms I spoke with offer a brief summary of the most common fungi wreaking havoc on skin. Plus, how they're normally treated.

What to know about Tinea versicolor: This fungus falls under the non-contagious category, and according to Dr. Bard, it appears on your skin when "yeast makes a bleaching agent that leaves behind light colored spots that take months to resolve." People who live in warm and humid climates and athletes are more likely to get this one, especially during the summer months. But luckily, Dr. Cellura points out that this variety usually only poses a cosmetic concern (though it can be itchy).

If you go to your dermatologist, they will likely suggest you use an anti-dandruff shampoos contain fungus-fighting ingredients like selenium sulfide (like Selsun Blue) or zinc pyrithione(like Head and Shoulders) all over your body.

Tinea pedis (Ahlete's foot): This type can be spread from person to person, and can be picked up from locker rooms, community showers, or sweating. If you've ever seen a case, you know that it's not exactly, well, pretty. "When present, tinea pedis looks like red scaly patches on the feet. The most common sites to see the rash include the spaces between the toes and the soles and sides of the feet," says Dr. Cellura. 

For treatment, your doc will likely prescribe an anti-fungal cream, but the dermatologist notes that you can take extra precautions, like right now, by treating your sneakers with anti-fungal spray, and making sure your feet are completely dry before you slide on your tennis shoes post-hot yoga class.

Tinea corporis (Ringworm): Despite the name of this fungus, there are no worms actually present. (Phew!) "The term ringworm came about as the spots tend to appear ring-shaped, with a raised outer border, central clearing, and scaling of the skin," says Dr. Cellura. Dr. Patel adds that you can pick this one up from the ground and soil (and even just letting your pup snuggle on your bed). But again, you're more likely to get it if you're the type of person who skips the shower line after spin class.

This one will likely also be treated with a topical like Clotrimazole or Terbinafine, but if a more extensive area is affected, your derm might prescribe an oral regimen too, according to Dr. Cellura. 

Speaking of things you'd rather not have on your skin, here's how to treat back acne holistically, and how to rid your bod of "chicken bumps."

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