Slacking on hygiene when you’re getting sweaty could land you gnarly toenails and unsightly infections. Shield your skin by following these expert tips.
Diana Kelly 1 / 8
Sure, you hit the gym for your health, but looking good is also a big motivator behind buckling down. And you know what doesn’t look good on a chiseled body? A fungal infection. Or discolored toenails. Or an infected wound. Yup, we can almost guarantee that no girl is going to be OK with that.
The secret to keeping your skin safe from the creepy crawlers in the weight room, dugout or open water: Not slacking when it comes to covering up and cleaning up. Use this guide to grade your hygiene habits and shield your skin from unsightly infections, like heat rash, eczema, and athlete’s foot.
The staff at your gym disinfects equipment regularly (or at least we hope they do), but research suggests that might not be enough. “Studies show that viruses, like those associated with colds, could live on the surfaces even though the equipment was cleaned recently,” says Miguel Sanchez, MD, associate professor of dermatology at NYU School of Medicine, who identifies handles and seats as some of the biggest hot spots for gym germs. If that’s not enough to motivate you into an equipment-cleaning frenzy, Sanchez says you can also pick up warts and E. coli from workout equipment. Yuck.
Fix it: Even if your health club’s got a dedicated cleaning crew, use the antibacterial spray available at your gym to wipe down the workout tools you’ll be touching. If you’re exercising on weight machines, wear shorts that are long enough to cover your thighs and minimize skin-equipment contact.
You just finished a hard-core game of pickup basketball with your buddies and now you’re rushing to the local dive bar to watch the pros play on TV—without changing out of your workout clothes. Here’s why you should reconsider: Sitting around in sweaty gear makes your skin susceptible to tinea versicolor, a type of yeast infection—no, not the same type your girlfriend might get—that causes dark brown discoloration on your back, chest, neck, arms, and trunk, says Sanchez.
Wet workout clothes can also spell trouble for your pits and pubic area. If they smell, um, worse than usual, a bacterial infection could be to blame. When bacteria attach to hair shafts in sweaty areas, the result is an extra-strong odor plus changes in hair color and texture.
Fix it: “The sooner you shower and change out of your workout clothes, the better,” says Jeffrey Dover, MD, a dermatologist at SkinCare Physicians in Chestnut Hill, MA. If you experience tinea versicolor, a selenium sulfide shampoo or lotion (available at drugstores) will help clear it up. Shaving should get rid of a stinky hair infection, but you can also use an over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide gel or drying powders that contain microcellulose (like Zeasorb) to help heal the infected area.
Be honest: When’s the last time you switched out the razor in your gym bag? If it’s old, the blade you’re dragging across your face could be contaminated with bacteria and fungus. If the razor is dull, it pulls at (rather than cuts) the hairs, notes Dover. This causes razor burn and inflames hair follicles, leading to red, pimple-like bumps—pretty much the opposite of the clean-shaven look you were going for.
Fix it: Change your gym-bag razor as often as you would your at-home version. After you shave, let it air-dry instead of stuffing it back in your bag alongside your sweaty shorts.
You’ve probably experienced the itching, burning, between-the-toes type of athlete’s foot at one point or another. But since the infection takes several forms, there are a few symptoms that you may not be familiar with, like a red, scaly infection on the sole and side of the foot or blisters on the bottom of the foot. Also remember that when your feet are wet, you’re more susceptible to unattractive toenail fungus, which left untreated can spread across toes—and keep her from ever giving you a foot massage.
Fix it: Wear shower shoes around the locker room and on wet surfaces, like the pool deck. Change out of sweaty socks ASAP and thoroughly dry your feet (including in between the toes) after you shower.
If you’re showering too frequently (yes, it’s possible), using water that’s too hot or using too strong of a cleanser—that means most deodorant soaps—you’re probably drying out your skin, says Dover. Swimming in a chlorinated pool might also explain why your skin is flakier lately.
Fix it: Take shorter showers with medium-temperature water and apply lotion to your entire body afterward.
Swimming offers a great total-body workout, but training in a chlorinated pool or open water could wreck havoc on your skin. Thanks to irritating pool chemicals, swimmers have a higher likelihood of developing eczema (inflamed, red, and itchy patches) anywhere on their bodies. Doing open water swims in rivers and oceans can also put you at risk for swimmer's itch, a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to microscopic parasites.
Fix it: Shower immediately after a pool workout to wash away chlorine. If you’re swimming in open water, wearing a wetsuit is your best defense against harmful bacteria. Always change out of a wet swimsuit as soon as possible to avoid a case of jock itch, a rash caused by a fungal infection.
Sliding into home during your company softball game makes for a great play—but it’ll likely beat up your skin, too. Those minor cuts might not seem like a big deal, but they’re still open wounds that could harbor dirt, sweat, and bacteria. When skin is lacerated, diving in the dirt, sharing equipment, and sweating in restrictive clothing can lead to bacterial and fungal infections, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine.
Fix it: Avoid sharing equipment, or wear a hat under a shared helmet and keep your batting gloves on whenever possible. Clean scrapes with an antiseptic cleanser and watch for infection in the days that follow. Wear clothing that breathes and change out of sweaty clothes as soon as possible, even if it’s in the bathroom at the post-game bar celebration.