It’s not your imagination, your sweat-inducing workouts are a likely trigger of itchy eczema. We’ll explain why and how to calm your skin so you can still get the feel-good benefits of moving your body.
You’re not alone in the itchy skin club. Up to 20 percent of children and 1 to 3 percent of adults have eczema (aka atopic dermatitis).
Having eczema means your overactive immune system responds to irritation with inflammation. If your delicate dermis doesn’t like a product or fabric or environmental trigger, it lets you know with itching, redness, and painful skin.
Eczema triggers are hard to identify because there’s a lag time between exposure to something irritating and an inflamed reaction.
Common triggers include:
- dry skin
- irritants like metals, soaps, cleaners, and fabrics
Gonna make you sweat
There are a few ways sweating is believed to aggravate people with eczema:
- Leaving sweat on your skin can lead to dryness and irritation.
- Your sweat has a different chemical makeup from most people.
- Clogged pores block sweat, causing it to leak under the skin.
For those with eczema, the buildup of sweat on top of the skin, like under a tight polyester top or in a hot gym with poor ventilation, sweat glands become plugged and prevent the release of sweat. This leads to overheated skin and dryness which both exacerbate eczema.
That’s not all. If sweat can’t escape the clogged sweat gland, it leaks into the surrounding tissue under your skin and causes a histamine reaction. Histamines are released when the body is exposed to an allergen.
People with atopic dermatitis have an allergic response to antigens (a substance that causes an immune response) in sweat. Studies have shown that between 77 and 96 percent of people with atopic dermatitis have an allergic response to sweat.
Researchers have also found that people with atopic dermatitis have more glucose in their sweat which is also associated with more skin problems.
If you have impaired sweating, altered sweat composition, and dry skin, they all add up to an itchy situation. Also, studies have found the sweat of people with eczema has lower antimicrobial properties making them more prone to skin infection.
Itchy mind tricks
To make matters worse, worrying about itch while you work out can actually make you itch. People with atopic dermatitis are more vulnerable to “contagious itch.” Contagious itch is that peculiar phenomenon where you feel real itchiness after seeing someone scratch, hearing the sound of scratching, or even just seeing a picture of a creepy crawly.
Roughly rubbing your skin can also induce itch, so take it easy wiping down with a scratchy gym towel.
Don’t swear off sweat
Don’t despair! You can still work up a sweat. The thing to avoid is letting the sweat sit on your skin too long. Keep a soft, clean towel handy to mop up sweat, and shower or rinse off as soon as you’re done working out.
It goes without saying, but we’re saying it. Exercise is generally good for you and your eczema because of health benefits like:
- lower stress, depression, and anxiety
- a healthier immune system
- stronger muscles, heart, and bones
Here’s how you can get the exercise that makes you feel good without stimulating extra itchiness.
Check your outfit
How you dress when you exercise can have a big impact on eczema flare-ups. Tight spandex may look cute, but it’s not your skin’s friend. Follow these tips for dressing to sweat:
- Avoid spandex, wool, and manmade “tech” materials if they irritate you.
- Use light, breathable fabric like cotton.
- Go for a looser fit so you don’t trap sweat against your skin.
- Try skimpier clothes for a cooler workout, your skin will appreciate it.
Be aware of the temperature
If your Crossfit box is more like a garage with no air conditioning, your eczema is probably not happy. Hot temps and a lack of ventilation mean more sweat pooling on your skin, triggering an eczema flare. Try this instead:
- Find an exercise spot that’s air-conditioned or well-ventilated.
- Take a cool to warm shower right after your workout and moisturize right after.
- Use products that work for your skin instead of whatever soap is in the gym’s dispenser.
- Exercise at home where you can easily control the temp and follow your own shower/moisturize routine.
Shield yourself from UV light
Yes, sunshine is glorious for your mood and vitamin D levels, but ultraviolet (UV) rays are rough on eczema. You can still exercise outside and soak up nature, just follow these tips, for your skin’s sake:
- Exercise outside in the early morning or evening to avoid the most intense UV rays of the day. (Bonus: These times also boast cooler temps, which are better for eczema.)
- Wear sunscreen. (Bet you’ve never heard that before!)
Adjusting exercise to give flare-ups a break
If your current workout causes a flare, switch things up.
- Try outdoors instead of indoors, or vice versa.
- Dial back the intensity. Not getting overheated can give your skin a chance to calm down.
- Try slower activities like walking, yoga, or tai chi to let your skin chill between intense workouts.
- Take plenty of rest breaks to cool down during workouts.
- Gently blot sweat with a towel so it doesn’t accumulate on your skin.
- Bring extra water on outdoor workouts to periodically rinse sweat away.
If you’ve been dealing with eczema for a long time, you probably have a soothing skin care routine established. If not, here are the basics of skin care for eczema:
- Take warm baths, limited to 5 to 10 minutes. Baths are good for rinsing away irritants and hydrating skin, as long as the water is not too hot.
- Dry off very gently. Remember, handle your skin too roughly and it will get angry and inflamed.
- Moisturize right after bathing with your preferred cream, ointment, or lotion. The best moisturizer is probably simple (no fragrances or extra ingredients) and creamy (to moisturize without being heavy or hard to apply).
- During flares, you may need to use an anti-inflammatory (steroid) cream.
- Some people with eczema get relief from wet wraps. First, apply moisturizer, then wrap the area with warm damp bandages. Finally, wrap with dry bandages. This can relieve itching and reduce scratching.
- Wear loose, light clothing made of cotton or silk.
It’s not out of line to think what you eat could impact eczema flare-ups. There’s some overlap in food allergies and atopic dermatitis: about 40 percent of children with moderate to severe atopic dermatitis also have food allergies.
However, there’s not much evidence that diet can improve eczema. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, avoiding foods that cause an allergic reaction rarely stops an eczema flare.
Experimenting with elimination diets to identify possible food triggers can backfire with children, leading to:
- weight loss
- poor growth
- vitamin and mineral deficiency
- malnutrition from lack of protein
If you have a diagnosed food allergy or sensitivity, absolutely avoid that food! Just don’t expect cutting out certain foods to cure your eczema.
It’s not your imagination, sweating it out at the gym may be getting your eczema fired up. You may even be allergic to sweat (gasp)! But you don’t have to resign yourself to a life without movement. There are steps you can take to exercise and keep your skin calm, like wear the right workout gear, watch the temps, adjust your routine, and follow a good skin care plan.