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How Much of My Breakout Can I Blame on Sweat?

After every workout, it’s like I’m going through puberty again

Unfortunately, I was besieged by a persistent and embarrassing outbreak of back acne (aka “bacne”) during my early 20s, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. In fact, for years, the best fix I could muster was to never be seen shirtless in the gym (it was against the club’s policy anyway), and to turn my back toward as few of my fellow club members as possible.

The entire time, I just assumed I was cursed to be a bump-infested mess, and attributed my unsightly acne outbreaks to the influence of sweat. After all, I was doing plenty of sweating, and it’s not like my face was blemishless either.

Does sweat actually cause acne?

Absolutely. Yes. 100 percent. But just because you’re working out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that sweat is causing your acne. Conversely, sweat may be causing some of your acne, but not all of it. See, if you’re frequenting the gym at the right epoch of your life, your acne can be the consequence of a bizarre confluence of circumstances that all conspire to simultaneously mar your body with unsightly zits.

However, because you asked, we’ll begin by discussing sweat-related acne, which is also known as acne mechanica. This is one of the things that happens when you decide to approach your workouts while wearing form-fitting clothes that aren’t sweat-wicking, along with headbands, weight belts and any other sort of fitness attire that traps the sweat and bacteria contained within it against the skin, and further applies friction to the site. This combination holds the sweat in place, plugs the pores and results in the sort of blockages that generate acne.

Got it. Time to buy some dope new sweat-wicking Nike attire!

Before you do that, I hope you’ll read this.

You ruin everything, don’t you?

It’s practically in my job description.

Okay, so how else does working out cause acne?

Generally speaking, the gym is a filthy place. No matter how well-intended gym goers are when they spray and wipe down their equipment before or after their workouts, they certainly don’t spray and wipe down the bottoms of their shoes after they’ve walked through the parking lot or ambled through the feculent, urine-soaked floors of the bathrooms. Not to mention, tracking locker room debris across the gym floor and depositing it in the assorted workout areas undeniably leaves behind a trail of bacteria.

I need to be clear here, though: I am not talking about the specific acne-producing bacteria yet, although I’ll get to it. Right now, I’m just talking about run-of-the-mill excrement that sweat can soak up and lock into place, thereby contributing to the severity of a breakout.

What is this other type of bacteria you’re talking about?

Researchers have discovered a specific strain of bacteria, called Propionibacterium acnes, that can turn skin oils into fatty acids that inflame skin cells and cause them to produce acne. Individuals stricken with this sort of bacteria often require a combination of anti-bacterial treatments and surgeries to remove it for good.

That all sounds awful, but it doesn’t have anything specifically to do with working out. Are there any other ways that working out can give me acne?

Absolutely; I’ve been saving the best for last.

Being the legendary (in my own mind at least) wrestling book writer that I am, I’ve viewed thousands of wrestling matches and seen my fair share of professional wrestlers who’ve been forced to contend with pernicious bacne breakouts that were on the same level as mine, including Jinder Mahal and the late Eddie Guerrero. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these breakout issues have dogged wrestlers who have undergone obvious body transformations and packed on conspicuous slabs of muscle.

While it’s more likely than not that the acne they’re exhibiting is a response to hormonal supplementation, the ages and workout preferences of regular gym goers — particularly if their preferred exercises cause the body to maximize its own production of testosterone — can contribute extensively to the production of acne. This is because testosterone can cause excessive sebum production, which can inflame glands and cause breakouts to transpire.

It’s starting to sound like I’m doomed.

Not necessarily. If your acne is caused by some of the things we’ve discussed, you’ll either have to wait it out, or visit a dermatologist. However, to compensate for sweat’s contributions to your problems, you should definitely invest in moisture-wicking workout gear, spray and wipe down every surface you come into contact with at the gym and wash yourself off quickly after you exercise. 

Basically, don’t sit around for hours in sweat-soaked gym attire playing Smash Bros. as Banjo and Kazooie, and then act surprised when you experience your first bacne breakout in 10 years, because that’s totally not something I managed to do a couple of years ago when I got a little too engrossed in a video game to preemptively tend to the health of my skin.