Is exercise good or bad for skin?

Do you get your stress out by working up a sweat?
Do you get your stress out by working up a sweat?

Beauty isn't skin deep, even when it comes to the beauty of your skin. Fluctuating levels of hormones are the reason our skin hits a decidedly rough patch in our adolescent years. But no matter how old you are, stress hormones (such as androgen and cortisol), the sun's UV rays and your lifestyle all affect the appearance of your skin.

Your skin is your largest organ, and it's easy to take it for granted. For one thing, it doesn't appear to be doing much. This isn't true, though -- your skin is constantly working on your behalf. It protects you from microscopic invaders such as viruses and bacteria, keeps moisture out and keeps every other part of you in. That's no small order for a layer of tissue that is -- at its thinnest point, on your eyelids -- just half a millimeter thick. Not only that, but your skin is constantly replacing itself, producing new skin cells that migrate outward toward the surface. It is during this migration that skin cells can clog pores, leading to acne.


Most of us have to deal with acne at some point in our lives, and many of us deal with it off and on throughout. Infants get it, teenagers are cursed with it, and it even strikes adults. And that's not all that's happening to your skin as you age -- skin gains wrinkles, creases, and shows its wear and tear. It loses its once youthful glow, loosens, takes on a grayish hue and develops discolored spots.

Every organ in your body is affected to some degree by aging, stress, and the introduction of unwelcome substances. Exercise, however, has been shown to slow, stop or even reverse many of the signs of these conditions.

As great as staying in shape is, one of the primary reasons we huff it and puff it at the gym or on the track is to look good. So why does exercise seem to make some people's skin break out?

Stop! Don't throw away your workout gear before reading the next page.


Skin, Stress and Exercise

Your skin has a mind of its own, and it's a mind that doesn't always react well to stress. Your skin does its best to keep out viruses and other antigens (unwanted foreign substances), but it also has its own immune response when unwelcome guests manage to bypass the outermost layer. When this occurs, the skin facilitates the rush of white blood cells to the invasive substance, where they do their best to disable and destroy it before it advances any further.

Sometimes your skin goes overboard with enthusiasm, and the cells involved in the immune response become overactive, causing inflammation. When you get stressed out, your body orders more immune cells to the skin than are needed, and this can lead to blotchiness, redness and itching.


But stress wreaks havoc on your skin in other ways as well. When your body detects stress, it prepares you to run from a lion or to engage a rival caveman in battle. It does this by prompting the release of stress hormones from your adrenal glands. These hormones -- which include cortisol -- then trigger a number of other changes in your body. Since very little of our day-to-day stress involves lion attacks or caveman-on-caveman battles, many of these bodily changes aren't useful, and are even -- in the case of your skin -- unwelcome. Cortisol triggers glands in your hair follicles to crank up production of sebum, a useful oil that normally makes its way up and out of the hair follicle, taking with it dead skin cells. Produce too much, however, and the sebum can block up the follicle, leading to a pile-up of dead skin cells behind it, followed by inflammation and acne.

What's this have to do with exercise? Exercise makes you feel less stressed out for a reason: It lowers cortisol levels in the body (and often provides a pleasant endorphin boost to boot). Lower cortisol levels -- and thus lower stress -- means less chance of your skin overloading on immune cells, and more normal levels of sebum production.

But exercise benefits the skin in other ways as well, which we'll learn about in the next section.


Working Out Without Breaking Out

Your skin is full of blood vessels that transport oxygen and other nutrients to the cells responsible for your skin's appearance. If you're in poor health, you have fewer blood vessels in your skin, and it shows. You lose that rosy, healthy looking glow, which consciously and subconsciously affects and informs others' opinions of your state of health.

Throughout the day, your skin also accumulates toxins and grime from a number of sources: polluted air, dirty surfaces it comes in contact with and hygiene products such as deodorant or lotion. Exercise helps to flush these toxins out of your skin, removing both the layer of film and the foreign particles that trigger the immune response and sometimes lead to inflammation.


So if exercise is so wonderful for the skin, why do some people break out? Most negative effects of exercise on the skin are due to external factors. Protective helmets and chin straps often cause a form of acne called acne mechanica. Acne mechanica is caused by a number of environmental factors such as heat, friction and constant pressure against the skin. Headbands may cause a breakout along the forehead, and close-fitting workout gear made of synthetic fibers may also cause skin problems. Try wearing workout clothing made of cotton instead.

Be warned that wearing makeup while you exercise is going to lead to clogged pores, and clogged pores lead to trouble. Before exercising, wash your face completely clean of makeup and gently pat it dry. You'll also want to wash your hands before and after working out, and try not to touch your face or wipe hair away from your eyes. After your workout is over, change out of sweaty clothes and shower as soon as possible -- the act of sweating unclogs pores, but once sweat evaporates, it leaves behind salt that can clog them again. Exercise also boosts cell renewal, which is good, unless those dead cells aren't promptly washed off your skin's surface to prevent blockages.

Finally, outdoor activity increases the likelihood of your skin being damaged by the sun. If you exercise outdoors, do so in the early morning or late afternoon, avoiding the middle of the day when you're at highest risk of UV exposure. Wear a strong sunscreen to protect your skin.

Want to read more about skin care? Click over to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Acne Mechanica." (Aug. 31, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dermatologists Warn Fitness Enthusiasts: Watch For Exercise-Related Skin Problems." Nov. 16, 2007. (Aug. 31, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "What is Acne?" (Aug. 29, 2009)
  • American Journal of Pathology. "Stress May Make You Itch." ScienceDaily. Oct. 28, 2008. (Sep. 14, 2009)
  • Amirlak, Bardia, MD. "Skin, Anatomy." Sep. 5, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2009)
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Exercise Your Body -- and Your Skin: Lifting weights, doing aerobic workouts, and stretching into a yoga pose all benefit your skin as well as your body." (Aug. 31, 2009)
  • Harper, Julie C, MD.; Fulton Jr., James, MD, PH.D. "Acne Vulgaris." July 15, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2009)
  • Lee, Delphine J.; Shellow, William V.R. "Management of Acne." Primary Care Medicine: Office Evaluation and Management of the Adult Patient (5th edition). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006. ISBN 078177456X, 9780781774567. whiteheads+blackheads
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "Acne." Aug. 2006. (Aug. 30, 2009)
  • Perricone, Nicholas, M.D. The Clear Skin Prescription: The Perricone Program to Eliminate Problem Skin. HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0060934360, 9780060934361.
  • Public Library of Science. "Red In The Face? People Use The Color Of Your Skin To Judge How Healthy You Are." ScienceDaily. Apr. 9, 2009. (Sep. 14, 2009)
  • Smith, R.; Mann, N.; Mäkeläinen, H., Roper, J.; Braue, A.; Varigos, G. "A pilot study to determine the short-term effects of a low glycemic load diet on hormonal markers of acne: a nonrandomized, parallel, controlled feeding trial." Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. June 2008.
  • Wagner, Holly. "Study: Exercise helps speed wound healing in older adults." Jan. 3, 2005.
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