There are so many great reasons to work out, and all those awesome benefits to your appearance and well being are totally worth it. That said, there may also be a few unwelcome side effects, if you’re not careful—and no, we’re not talking about smashed toes from dropped weights. You already know to never be barefoot in the locker room to avoid picking up Athlete’s Foot (and if you didn’t, consider that your PSA). Here are 10 more tricky scenarios and how to handle ‘em.
You pull your fave gym tee fresh from the laundry and head straight to the weight room. Shortly after your warmup, you start to notice a dank stank—and then you realize it’s you. While tech materials are awesome at wicking sweat to keep you comfy, after multiple wears, they can start to suck up odor, too, which conveniently doesn’t come to full bloom until you’re already banging out a pyramid set.
To fix: Let clothes dry out before putting them in the hamper, or simply launder them right away. A half-hour soak in white vinegar and water before washing can help to kill the stink-causing bacteria, or you could try using an activewear-specific laundry detergent, which has enzymes designed for the job. Just don’t think adding more detergent will improve the situation: excessive soap won’t rinse well and can compound the problem. Skip the fabric softener, too, which wreaks havoc on tech materials’ techiness by coating clothes.
It may not (just) be your clothes with a funk problem. “Bromohidrosis, the technical term for smelly sweat, is caused by a combination of the fatty acids and testosterone produced in the sweat glands with skin bacteria,” says dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD of Rapaport Dermatology of Beverly Hills “Certain fatty acid + bacteria combinations can produce specific—and bad—odors.”
To fix: Ask your derm about a prescription topical antibiotic solution. “It's not really the sweat that smells, but the bacteria that grows,” Shainhouse says.
Ever wonder why you sometimes (or even often) get zits on your back, shoulders, or butt? “Dermatologically, we call this folliculitis,” says Shainhouse. “It’s caused by inflammation and irritation of the hair follicles, and can be exacerbated by sitting around in sweaty gym clothes and rubbing up on gym equipment covered with bacteria and yeast.”
To fix: For starters, don’t just sit around in your sweaty clothes post-workout. Shower up right away and put on clean clothes. Using a body wash or wipes that contain salicylic acid can help to clear up and even prevent breakouts, but if you aren’t successful going it alone, a dermatologist can prescribe topical treatments.
Definitely (well, hopefully) not a chronic problem, runners who don’t know better can experience chafing from a shirt during the course of a long run that leaves their nips red and raw and even weeping blood. (Yeah, that’s what you’re seeing on some dude’s shirts in the high miles of the marathon.) Ouch.
To fix: Switching your shirt from cotton to a tech material can help, but the best protection is a bit of anti-chafe lube, like BodyGlide, or taping up pre-run with good ole fashioned bandaids.
Another from the “what’s the deal with that smell?” files: “Exercise can cause you to become dehydrated, which in turn can cause decreased salivary flow,” explains Robin Nathanson, D.M.D. founder of Madison Dental Spa in New York, NY. “When your mouth is dry, it can cause foul breath.” Further, exercisers often reach for sugar-y sports drinks to rehydrate, which add to the trouble. “Sugar is bacteria's favorite ‘food,’ which creates even more bacteria and more halitosis [AKA bad breath],” Nathanson says. Finally, being on a low-carb, high-protein diet can compound the problem, but for a different reason: When the body lacks carbs for ready energy, it reverts to ketosis, breaking down fat and producing ketones. “These give breath a sickly sweet smell,” she says.
To fix: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, but with water or sugar-free drinks, not the super-sweetened stuff. Brushing your teeth, flossing, and rinsing with a little alcohol-free mouthwash after a workout can help, too.
Dental problems can extend to more than just relatively harmless halitosis. When exerting, it’s not uncommon to set your jaws and grit your teeth. “We've all seen guys bench-pressing with that clenched face,” says Nathanson. This can wear out the enamel, leading to painful exposed roots, susceptibility to cavities, and even the need for a root canal. It can also cause jaw or neck pain, headaches, and dental problems such as severely worn or chipped and cracked teeth. “Unusually heavy wear on the back teeth can even lead to a collapsed bite,” she says, which can change the structure of your face!
To fix: Be aware of your jaw when you lift: Keep it slack or, at the least, don’t clamp down as you attack a heavy lift or when cranking out those last miles of a long run. Mouth guards, like those made by Under Armour, can offer some protection, and in more serious cases, a dentist can fit you with a custom bite guard to prevent further damage.
These irregular discolored splotches tend to be more obvious in the summer when skin is tan. “Tinea versicolor is a yeast that lives on greasy, sweaty skin, especially the chest, upper back, and shoulders.” Shainhouse explains. “Interestingly, this yeast is not usually irritating, but it produces an enzyme that eats the color out of your skin cells.”
To fix: You’ll need a doctor’s visit for a prescription for anti-yeast wash, cream, and/or pills. “Once the yeast is treated, it can take months for the color to return,” says Shainhouse. “And it's pretty easy to pick this infection up again, if the person using the bench before you has it.” Yet another reason to wipe down equipment before and after you use it.
More common in endurance athletes who run or bike a lot, the toenails’ constant banging against the inside of shoes can cause bruising (“subungual hematomas”) that can take months to grow out, or cause the nail to just fall off. Even grosser: “Because this trauma can lift the nail from the nail bed, it offers up a great opportunity for fungus, onychomycosis, to get under the nail,” says Shainhouse. “This leads to thick, yellow, crumbly, cracked infected toenails.”
To fix: If you’re at the really nasty stage described above, it can be tough to treat, though topical or oral antifungals may help. To prevent it from getting that far, make sure your toes have plenty of wiggle room in shoes (at least a thumb-width). And under no circumstances should you walk around barefoot in the locker room or pool deck, which are breeding grounds for fungus looking for a new home.
There’s getting a good glisten, and then there’s standing in a puddle of your own making. Hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, tends to be a complaint of people who work out a lot and typically affects the armpits, hands, and feet. It can be annoying both in social situations and when trying to grip the bar while eking out that last set of bench presses.
To fix: Prescription-strength antiperspirants that contain a minimum of 20% aluminum chloride can stop up pores in pits as well as on palms and soles. Chalks or powders can help absorb on hands and feet as well, at least to get you through your workout. “People with severely overactive sweat glands sometimes benefit from Botox in their hands and feet, especially if they are too wet to hold a pen or can't open tight jars because their hands are so slippery,” says Shainhouse. She notes this may not be the best hand treatment for athletes, though, as it can affect grip strength.
In case you haven’t caught on, bad smells are pretty much always caused by sweat and bacteria. Shoes have the added issue of mold, from not drying out thoroughly. “Complicating the matter, is the fact that people keep their sweaty feet inside their hot, sweaty shoes all day, where they cannot breathe,” Shainhouse says.
To fix: Spray sneakers regularly with antibacterial and antifungal sprays, or wash them in hot water. Another way to kill germs on shoes that can’t be washed is to place them in plastic bags and store them in the freezer for a few days. Between uses, stuffing shoes with plain old newspaper can help them dry out faster. “It’s important to examine feet for white scale, mushy white patches between toes, or pink rashes or thick yellow toenails,” adds Shainhouse. “These need to be treated, to kill infection and hopefully alleviate some of the foot smell.”