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A Users Guide to Your Skin in the Gym

Posted Jan 07 2010 6:33pm

Sweat. Expended energy. Stress relief. Weight loss. Heart health. Friend time. Or alone time. An excuse to wear the ridiculously cute new workout duds from Nike Dance Line. I mean, really, what's not to love about working out?

Well, there is one part of you that doesn't appreciate your dedication to exercise - and I'm not talking about your butt after an hour of Spin class. I'll give you a hint: it's the largest organ in your body. (Bonus are-you-smarter-than-a-fifth-grader question: What is the closest star to earth*?)

Your Skin in the Gym
Not only is your skin great for showing off those new muscles you're building but more importantly your epidermis is there to protect you from all the germies waiting to get you. So what do we do to it? We lay it on ancient bodily fluid filled mats. We recline in puddles of stranger sweat on the weight bench. We use public restrooms. We bite our nails while using the elliptical. We hold dumb bells that 3 generations of gym goers have sneezed on. We even scrape it on Gym Buddy Allison's nails when she blocks us from making a basket whilst playing horse. (What, you too??) Frankly, you'd think we'd treat it better.

For all the abuse we subject it to, most of them time it still manages to serve and defend - and if we're really lucky get a nice glow. Until it doesn't.

I've Got Sweat in Strange Places
I got an interesting reader mail the other day. Reader L writes, "I have an exercise problem. I hate working out because every time I sweat it runs down my back and gives me seriously bad bacne. (That would be acne on the back for those of you not linguistically hip and/or not avid fans of ProActiv infomercials.) It turns into a vicious cycle because I don't want people to see my bacne so I cover up more. Which makes me sweat more. Please tell me I'm not alone! What do I do?"

Before L brought the subject up, the extent of the Gym Buddies and my conversations about sweaty skin issues was limited to making up silly and slightly perverted names for the weird sweat marks we get working out. Gym Buddy Jen came up with "swack" for sweaty crack and Turbo Jennie coined "swoobs" for boob sweat. I'll leave the rest up to your imagination as this is a family friendly site. I'll just leave you with this: there's a reason nobody should ever work out in tight gray pants or shorts. If that's all you ever learn from me, my work here is done.

Now, while I don't get bacne, I do have a cyst on my back that at its largest was the size of a golf ball. That is if the golf ball was red and painful and filled with a "cheese-like substance" and shoved tortuously under my skin. The doctor said that it could easily have been caused by a sweat duct that got clogged and infected. Thankfully the second doctor I saw (not the one who so vividly described the cyst's innards by the way) gave me antibiotics and now it just looks - like I explained a few days ago - like an overly aggressive hickey. Or maybe a rabies shot. I'm sorry to say that I never did get a picture of it in its inflamed glory so you'll just have to trust me that it was really really disgusting.

Anyhow, I wasn't sure what to tell L. I gave her some lame response involving the brilliant "shower right after you work out?" and the obvious "make sure you wear wicking clothes" to the spendy "buy one of those sports bra with the mesh back." Surely you all can do better than that!

Invasion of the Super Bugs
Bacne and cysts are tame compared to what else lurks in your gym. A girl I go to boot camp with got impetigo on her face from resting her cheek on a yoga mat. Lice has been found in improperly laundered gym towels. Athlete's foot has been around as long as there have been athletes. The bacteria that cause yeast infections has popped up on spin cycle seats (for the love of little green apples people, wear underwear!). But the scariest bug of all is CA-MRSA.

Community acquired multiple resistant Staphylococcus Aureus is the long way of saying "an infection that has no known cure." Once found only in hospitals, this antibiotic-impervius germ has started cropping up in public spots, most notably gyms, where it can be quite contagious. My family has had a couple of close brushes with this bad guy and both times the victims ended up in the hospital. Even once the victim has gotten over the infection, the process of sterilizing the home is quite the production. It involves a special anti-bacterial body wash that all members of the family must use for weeks in addition to top-to-bottom cleaning and even swabbing the nostrils with antibiotic ointment.

My brother got the infection in his face. It started out as what he thought was a zit and then quickly became infected and spread over his face. The excruciating pain sent him to the emergency room where they tried one antibiotic after another to no avail. At last, when he was looking at last resort surgery, something worked. An antibiotic or his body's natural defenses finally started overcoming the infection and today, thankfully, he is all clear.

What To Do
Basic rules of good hygiene apply here, whether we're talking acne, psoriasis or CA-MRSA:
- Try to shower as soon as you can after working out.
- Change out of your gym clothing as soon as you can.
- Launder all clothing and towels appropriately.
- Wash your hands frequently and/or use hand sanitizer at the gym (don't worry about looking nutso - there are lots of ways to look crazy and looking OCD is the least of your worries, really.)
- See a doctor immediately if you get any weird rashes or bumps start to look infected.
- Sanitize all equipment that you use and/or lay down a towel to provide an extra barrier.
- Protect any open cuts with band-aids.

That covers most of the common sense stuff, so I'll add the stuff that I know you're secretly asking:
- Don't exercise nude. I don't care if everyone else is doing it.
- Don't eat and workout at the same time. A swig of protein shake from your sports bottle is okay. Using a weight bench as your picnic table is not.
- Don't pop your zits in the mirrors on the weight floor.
- Don't suck your thumb.
- Don't sniff your fingers after sticking them in your bellybutton. I know it smells funky. But, seriously, that's gross.

There you have it! So, I know some of you have got some better advice for Reader L. Any of you suffer from bacne? Have some good tricks for avoiding or getting rid of it? Anyone else get a weird skin condition from the gym? Lastly, anyone else have a funny word to describe their sweat in inappropriate places??

*Bonus question answer: The sun!

This post look familiar? Every Friday (yeah, I changed it) is Greatest Hits Day here at GFE. This post originally ran January 2009.
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