From Barton Springs and Deep Eddy to Lady Bird trail and the greenbelt, Austin is an amazing city for outdoor activity. Dr. Amy McClung loves to run and exercise outdoors, but admits that between the heat, sweat and the sun Austin can be a challenging place for an outdoor athlete (especially during the summer months).
There’s no doubt that being an athlete does put you at increased risk for some skin conditions, such as skin infections and photo-induced skin changes, including skin cancer. Just like getting in shape, keeping your skin healthy requires a good daily routine. Fortunately there’s a lot you can do to keep your skin beautiful for years to come.
Chafing and Blisters
It’s very important to keep your skin dry and comfortable during exercise. Once the surface of the skin is compromised, you’re much more vulnerable to infections and other problems.
You want to prevent moisture from accumulating on the surface of the skin. Fortunately, fabric technology has come a long way and there are now great alternatives to cotton (such as Dri-Max). These fabrics pull perspiration off the surface of the skin to the outside of the fabric, where it can evaporate more easily.
As most runners know, BodyGlide can be essential to prevent chaffing. BodyGlide (or even Aquaphor or vaseline) on the feet, thighs, arms and bra areas keeps skin from rubbing against itself or clothing. In fact, during marathons volunteers commonly hand out sticks with vaseline to help the runners. It’s especially helpful to coat irritated skin with Aquaphor or Vaseline, since that gives the area a better chance to heal.
You can sidestep many common foot issues with properly fitted running shoes and good moisture wicking socks. Dr. McClung’s favorite socks include Swiftwick, Drymax and Balega (all of which are available at local running stores like Rogue).
If blisters do form, they can be drained with a sterilized needle and covered with a sterile dressing. But leave the skin at the top of the blister intact since that protects the wound. And always keep an eye out for signs of infection that would require a trip to a doctor right away.
MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a dangerous staph bacteria that used to mainly be a concern in hospital settings. However, athletes are increasingly at risk, particularly those involved in skin-to-skin contact sports such as wrestling. (Coincidentally, wrestlers are also more prone to pick up the herpes virus, HSV, due to direct skin contact.)
Initially, MRSA often shows up as an inflamed bump on the skin. It can sometimes be confused with a spider-bite. Never ignore an area that is showing signs of infection such as redness, swelling, pain or fever. Quick medical intervention is important to prevent the infection from spreading.
So how do you protect yourself against MRSA? Basic hygiene is good a start. If you’re using shared mats and equipment, make sure they are properly sanitized between each person. Also, avoid sharing personal items such as razors or towels that can spread infection. And always cover any open wounds, like blisters or scrapes.
Fungus loves moist warm environments. The most common fungal skin condition, athlete’s foot (tinea pedis), is sometimes mistaken for dry skin, since it commonly shows up as peeling skin between the toes. The good news is that it is often successfully treated with over-the-counter antifungal medication, such as Lamisil (terbinafine) cream. Zeasorb AF powder is another great over-the-counter medication that helps keep the feet (or other areas) dry during exercise and fight off yeast and fungal infections.
Toenail fungus can also be spread in locker rooms and showers. Though treatments are available, it’s not as easily addressed as athletes foot, so prevention is key. For example, it’s a good idea to wear flip-flops in shared facilities such as showers, changing rooms, and swimming pool decks.
If you do end up with a bad case of toenail fungus, your best bet is likely to be an oral medication (with lab monitoring) or a new laser treatment now available at some podiatrists.
Acne and Rosacea
Dr. McClung commonly sees athletes with body acne. It particularly seems to flare on the chest, shoulders and back when starting a new exercise routine. She recommends washing off sweat as soon as possible after exercise. Also, over the counter benzoyl peroxide washes can be very effective for body acne. It helps if you leave the wash on the chest and back several minutes before rinsing (though be careful, since the body wash can bleach towels and clothing).
Rosacea also tends to flare with heat and sun, and is a common concern for patients who exercise outdoors. In addition to prescription treatments, rinsing the skin with cold water often helps to temporarily alleviate the symptoms.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “healthy” tan. Ongoing daily exposure that causes the skin to tan also leads to premature aging and increased risk of skin cancer. In my experience, athletes aren’t usually trying to get a tan. But they commonly participate in multiple outdoor activities (hiking, swimming, etc.) all of which add up to a lot of lifetime sun exposure.
A hat is part of Dr. McClung’s standard running gear and she wouldn’t think about running without it! Invest in Dri-Fit hat and sunglasses that you love and keep them with your shoes. And keep in mind that a standard white cotton t-shirt actually provides very little sun protection (and even less once it’s wet). Some better brands of athletic clothing list a UPF rating. My favorite swim shirt is from a whole line of SPF50+ clothing by Athleta, which you can order online or by visiting their store in The Domain.
The time of day makes a big difference. UV rays are most intense between 10am and 4pm. So time your workouts for the early morning or late afternoon and you’ll have a headstart on keeping your skin safe. Of course, if you’re participating in team sports or competitive events, you might not have the luxury of early morning or late afternoon workouts.
Find a sunscreen that really works for you and remember to reapply. Even the best sunscreen loses its effectiveness after about 2 hours. We carry Elta UV Sport in the office specifically because it’s designed not to sting the eyes when you sweat. Sunscreen sticks and sprays are also great for reapplying on the go (Dr. McClung likes Neutrogena’s Beach Defense stick and the Elta Physical Spray).
And remember that no sunscreen is “waterproof.” Actually, the FDA recently eliminated that terminology and now only allows sunscreens to be described as “water resistant.” So you’ll need to reapply frequently if you’re in and out of the water.
Benefits of Exercise for Your Skin
Don’t let all of this keep you on the couch! Most common concerns are easily addressed with over-the-counter medication or a quick trip to our office.
Dr. McClung finds that her patients who are dedicated athletes tend to pay close attention to changes in their health, which results in early detection and better outcomes. In addition, the stress reduction benefits of exercise can be key to managing many skin conditions, such as acne and eczema, that are exacerbated by stress.
The fantastic health benefits from exercise can promote healthy, youthful skin throughout your life!