Does Sweat Cause Acne? The Workout Myth Solved

You’ve been lied to.

For years, cosmetics, skincare, and acne product companies have been telling you that you need to wash your face after every workout.  I mean, otherwise, you’ll get acne, right?

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Not only is sweat safe for your skin, but it’s actually one of the most powerful and effective natural acne-fighting substances out there.  The idea that you need to wash sweat off or you’ll break out isn’t supported by science or evolution – in fact, washing your face too much is just going to make your acne worse, not better.

It’s a myth that was started by skincare companies to do one thing – sell more skincare products.

I know you probably don’t believe me – after all, you’ve been hearing for decades that sweat is the enemy of glowing skin, but trust me, after this article, you’re going to think differently, not just about sweat and acne, but about all skincare products and acne.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

Why We Think More Sweat Means More Acne

To understand why sweat is actually good for clear skin, we first need to understand what causes acne to form in the first place.  It’s a relatively straightforward four part-process:

  1. The body produces excess skin cells and/or sebum oil
  2. Dead skin cells and/or sebum oil clog the pore
  3. Acne bacteria swarm the clogged pore and infect it
  4. The body triggers an inflammatory response – creating a big, protruding, red pimple

The argument for why sweat causes acne generally goes as follows: during a workout, sweat and moisture create an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, while dirt, grime, and other compounds in the air further contribute to bacterial growth that’ll eventually lead to acne.

In essence, most people assume that more sweat means more bacteria and that more bacteria means more acne.

While this sounds sensible, it’s important that we dispel this notion if we’re going to get to the bottom of what really causes acne.


Dispelling the Bacteria Myth

There’s no denying that too much bacteria, and more specifically, “propionibacterium acnes” bacteria, has a role to play.  If there is too much acne bacteria on the skin, the likelihood that those bacteria infect pores and lead to acne infections is much higher.

That’s why most people typically think that frequently cleaning the skin to kill bacteria, especially after a workout, will lead to less acne, when in fact, it’s oftentimes the opposite.

It’s also why acne products, like Proactiv, Clean and Clear, PanOxyl, Neutrogena contain benzoyl peroxide – an antibacterial chemical that kills acne bacteria (albeit a really harsh one and 3x less effective than coconut oil).

Now, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the following question: if killing bacteria on the surface of the skin really worked to beat acne, then why do acne products only seem to work for a few weeks? Why do you find yourself a month later with worse acne than you started with?

That’s where the skin microbiome comes into play.


The Skin Microbiome

You may have heard of the gut microbiome before – a colony of bacteria in the digestive system that plays a role in making sure your body can digest food.

Well, just like your gut, your skin has a natural colony of good bacteria that it uses to fight off bad bacteria, fungi, and viruses.  It’s your body’s most effective way of fighting off threats, including acne.

But what happens when we think that sweat causes acne, and we decide to constantly damage and wash away this colony of bacteria after every workout with harsh cleansers and creams?

Well, you temporarily get less bad bacteria, but you also have a lot less good bacteria, which in the long run, can be far more damaging to your skin.

Essentially, by using acne products, you’re making it harder for your skin to naturally fight acne on its own.  The acne bacteria become more and more resistant to the antibiotic cleansers and creams you use to eliminate them while you simultaneously destroy healthy and protective bacteria meant to help fend off acne.

This is a phenomenon called antibiotic resistance and is one of the largest issues facing individuals struggling with acne today1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23032935/.  It’s at the root of why you might see temporary improvements after using new acne products, and then rapidly declining, and sometimes worsening results from acne products.

Now, let’s get into how sweat impacts the skin microbiome…


Sweat – Nature’s Ultimate Skincare Product

So, acne products and facial cleansers cause (sometimes irreversible) damage to the skin microbiome and over clean the skin.  But why would sweat be any better?  Doesn’t sweat just clog pores and breed bad bacteria – it can’t be good for my skin, right?

Believe it or not, sweat is your own body’s ultimate bacterial and fungal acne-fighting machine.

Sweat contains a compound called dermcidin, which, like an acne cleanser, fights off bacteria (and fungus too, for those of us dealing with fungal acne) that can cause acne, but unlike acne cleansers, doesn’t leave you with the negative side effects that come with external cleansers.2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1173041/

In fact, it leaves you with the opposite – moisturized, healthy, glowing skin.

Not only does sweat fight off bacteria, but it also helps balance out and moisturize the skin – sweat contains a combination of water and minerals that help keep your skin moisturized, protected, and clean.  Sweat is nature’s best natural moisturizer – and unlike the ones you have at home, it won’t clog your pores and cause acne.

On top of its antibacterial and moisturizing effects, sweat also helps protect the skin and maintain a healthy skin barrier.3https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1323893018300947. Sweat may even play a role in combatting inflammation and preventing allergic reactions, two of the root causes of acne4https://hub.enmotive.com/post/sweat-benefits.


Probiotics for Your Skin

Sweat also plays a role in feeding the healthy bacteria on your skin, called ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, which in turn can help prevent acne and balance the skin.  Just like the gut, which contains tons of good bacteria that help keep maintain a healthy digestive and immune system, the skin has good bacteria that help keep it healthy and strong.

That’s why if you don’t have enough healthy bacteria on the skin naturally, you might want to consider adding a topical probiotic, like Mother Dirt, which contains these probiotics you may have stripped away after years of product use.

I’m not claiming that sweat is going to single-handedly clear your skin – but if you have dry or very oily acne-prone skin, skipping that post-workout shower might be a great step in the right direction for improving your skin’s health.  Let your body do its thing – it has much more wisdom than you would think.

Still anxious about not showering after a workout?

Just look at what scientists found when comparing acne-prone individuals who showered after a workout and those who didn’t…


Proof: You Don’t Need to Wash Your Face After a Workout

You don’t need to take my word for it – this study was conducted after scientists starting questioning the age-old advice to wash your face after a workout.

Participants in the study worked out 5 times a week for two weeks straight.

One group of participants were told to shower and wash their face within an hour of working out.

One group of participants were told to shower and wash their face at least 4 hours after the workout.

What happened after the two weeks?

Nothing.

Both groups had exactly the same amount of acne – there were no significant differences between the group that showered after the workout and the group that didn’t.

Also, think about it from an evolutionary standpoint for a second – do you think our hunting and gathering ancestors were washing their faces every time they broke a sweat?  Certainly not.

Our skin is a lot more resilient and intelligent than you’d think – you don’t need to tell it what to do with sweat!


When Should I Wash My Face After a Workout?

Coming from someone who (as a result of harsh acne cleansers) has dealt with damaged, dry, flakey skin my entire life, I was really wasn’t doing any favors when I washed my face with hot water and tons of creams after every workout.

But hey, when you’re obsessed about your skin and you still think dirt and sweat are what causes acne, you’ll do just about anything to get clear skin, right?

Despite the obvious signs that my skin microbiome was seriously hurting, I kept washing my face at least twice a day, including after workouts.

Eventually, tapered back to use only a handful of natural products and wash my face significantly less, and not only has my acne improved, but my overall skin health is so much better than it was.

So, do I wash my face after a workout (and should you)?

Really, in my opinion, it comes down to personal preference – you can wash your face after a workout if you want to, but you don’t have to, and if you’re like most people with dry, acne-prone skin, you might want to consider skipping it and washing your face later at night or in the mornings only.

You might find yourself breaking out or with oily skin at first – give it at least two weeks before you jump to any conclusions.  You might just find that washing your face less often with fewer products is exactly what you need to allow your skin to thrive.

The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t feel like you need to wash your face after a workout – in fact, the antimicrobials in sweat might be what your skin needs to fight acne.

Try it out for a bit – stop washing your face after workouts, see what happens, and let me know in the comments below how it went.  I think you’ll be surprised.

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Analyzed by Sam Wood

Sam has battled acne for a better part of his life. He created this website after his skin cleared up when he changed his diet and lifestyle. He built GoodGlow.co to be the ultimate guide to clear skin from within. Read more of Sam's articles.


1 thought on “Does Sweat Cause Acne? The Workout Myth Solved”

  1. Hi! Thanks for the info. I actually read previously too that it’s not the sweat but something to do with the hormones or cortisol (I can’t remember exactly)that are responsible for aggravating acne when doing high intensity workouts. Do you know anything about this?

    Reply

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