Much like sweating, turning bright red is a normal side effect of getting all hot and bothered. When our skin gets warmer than the air around us— whether from exercise or just being too sexy for our shirts— the body begins taking some drastic measures (yeah, we consider that flush drastic) to cool down Mechanisms and controllers of eccrine sweating in humans. Shibasaki, M., Crandall, C.G. Department of Environmental and Life Sciences, Nara Women’s University Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Nara Japan. Frontiers in Bioscience, 2010 January 1; 2: 685–696..

If You Can’t Stand the Heat — Why It Matters

Photo: Justin Singh
Exercising, especially in warm weather, ups internal body temperature. In fact, when working out, the human body can produce more than 1000 watts of heat— that’s a lot of Christmas lights Temperature regulation during exercise. Gleeson, M. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, England. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 1998 Jun;19 Suppl 2:S96-9.. In turn, the internal temps trigger the body to start cooling itself off. The normal MO is either sweating or increasing blood flow to the skin, or if we’re lucky (note the sarcasm), both Temperature regulation during exercise. Gleeson, M. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, England. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 1998 Jun;19 Suppl 2:S96-9.! More specifically, hot blood rushes to the skin's surface and the excess heat transfers out into the air. When it’s humid, sweating may be even less effective since the sweat can’t evaporate and cool the skin. So when it’s sticky out on the football field, a sexy red glow may be the skin’s only way to regulate temperature.

Shine On — The Answer/Debate

Even if it makes sense for our face to flush, we can’t help but notice some of us get significantly redder than others at the gym. Studies have suggested endurance athletes may flush more than their untrained counterparts, because their bodies produce more heat at the same level of exertion. Psychological factors, like the “Oh crap there’s my ex and I’m the color of a cherry snow cone” moment, may also contribute to just how red we get The effect of adrenergic blockade on blushing and facial flushing. Drummond, P.D. Division of Psychology, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia. Psychophysiology, 1997 Mar;34(2):163-8.. Moving from extreme cold (say, after hitting the slopes or returning from a wintry jog) to warmth can turn skin red, too, and also cause itching and swelling (fun!). But this condition, known as chilblains, is more common in extremities, like toes and ears. (Be sure to check with a doc if the redness doesn’t seem to wane.) Another hot topic: A red face along with slowed sweating and nausea could mean heat stroke. This most extreme type of heat illness can result in death (nearly 1,000 of them per year in the U.S.) and occurs when the body’s internal temperature reaches over 104 degrees, making it key to get cold fast. When heat stroke isn’t the culprit, cool down at a leisurely pace and allow the body to sweat it out (while staying hydrated, of course). A dry atmosphere may contribute to more effective sweating and a quicker cool-down with less redness. And wear that redness with pride— being cool with rosy cheeks could prevent blush-inducing redness, plus the glow may even make us appear healthier and more attractive.

The Takeaway

Turning red is a normal way for the body to cool itself off during exercise. Warm blood comes to the skin’s surface to better transfer its heat to the environment. Cooling down as usual, especially in dry climates, is the best way to return to a normal hue. Other factors like fitness level and embarrassment may contribute to redness.

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