Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health. It’s good for your heart and lungs, and can reduce weight. It can promote a healthy immune system, it’s good for your mood and your mental health, and it helps reduce stress.
Is exercise safe for people with eczema (also called atopic dermatitis)? In some people, exercise or vigorous physical activity can worsen eczema symptoms or lead to eczema flare-ups. This can occur primarily due to sweat or wearing clothing that irritates the skin.
Just as you must warm up before exercise, it’s important to prepare your skin before, during and after exercise. This will help reduce the risk of eczema flare-ups and keep your skin healthy.
How does exercise affect eczema?
Exercise often exposes people to triggers that irritate eczema symptoms. These triggers can cause itchy, sensitive, cracking skin or worsen eczema symptoms. Many people with eczema avoid exercise. But they can and should make exercise a regular part of their life.
Exercise and eczema triggers
When you exercise, you sweat. If you exercise outdoors, you may be exposed to allergens, dry air, weather changes and pollution. Certain fabrics may rub against your skin as you run or work out. These are all common eczema triggers.
Understanding what triggers your eczema is key. Work with your doctor to identify your triggers. When you know what triggers your eczema, you can take steps to prevent exposure and reduce eczema flares.
Sweat and eczema
When your body heats up from physical activity, your body temperature rises. To cool off and lower your body temperature, the body sweats. Sweating is healthy and your body needs it. But the sweat itself can irritate the skin.
Sweat is made up mostly of water and salt. As the sweat evaporates, it can dry out your skin and exacerbate eczema.
What can you do to limit sweating? First consider the types of exercises you do.
- High-intensity workouts, aerobics or working out in the heat can cause you to sweat.
- Low-impact workouts such as yoga or tai chi are slower, so you are less likely to sweat.
- Strength training can provide positive health benefits without making you sweaty.
Be sure to take regular rest breaks during exercise. Drink fluids to stay hydrated. Keep a small towel with you to blot sweat.
After your workout or physical activity, change out of sweaty clothes right away. Staying in sweaty and wet clothes can irritate the skin
Does sweat benefit the skin?
The skin is the first layer of defense protecting us from microorganisms (or germs) that live on the skin. When sweat glands release substances through sweat pores, they prevent the growth of germs. Sweating protects you from germs invading the body.
Since eczema compromises the skin barrier, people with eczema are more at risk from these germs. The germs can seep into cracks in the skin. So while it’s important to blot away sweat if it causes your eczema to flare up, remember that sweating actually has some positive benefits.
6 eczema and exercise fitness tips
Develop a fitness plan that takes eczema into account. This way you can enjoy the benefits of exercise and reduce the risk of an eczema flare-up at the same time.
Stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise
Good hydration is essential to any exercise routine. It helps regulate your body temperature and keeps the skin hydrated. Dry skin is an eczema trigger, so water is essential.
Make sure you drink water before, during, and after you work out. This will help to prevent dehydration and protect your skin.
If you’re going out for a walk or jog, pack extra water to splash on your body if you feel too hot. This can also help keep the skin from drying out.
Exercise in a cool place
Not only does exercising in the heat make your more sweaty, heat itself can trigger symptoms. So it is best to avoid exercising in the hot conditions.
Plan your workouts in a temperature-controlled gym. (It’s probably best to avoid that hot yoga class.) Use a fan or work out near one. If you must exercise outside, work out early in the morning or in the evening when temperatures have cooled.
Keep a cool damp cloth with you to blot off sweat on the skin. This can help keep the skin cool and moist.
Consider what you’re wearing
Current workout gear trends include more form fitting items made from synthetic fabrics. Unfortunately, synthetic fabrics are common triggers for eczema. Spandex and wool clothing, in particular, can cause itchy, irritated skin.
Cotton clothing is preferable for people with eczema. Worried that your clothing will make you stand out in a crowded gym or fitness center and you’ll feel self-conscious? Don’t be. Choosing the right clothing can help prevent a flare up, and what matters most is how you feel before, during and after a workout.
Tight clothing that rubs against the skin can also trigger eczema. It can also trap in sweat. Wear loose fitting, breathable fabrics when you exercise.
Take lukewarm or cool showers or baths after exercise
You may look forward to taking a hot shower after working out and rinsing away sweat. But hot water can dry out and irritate the skin. It can also damage the skin barrier, which can make eczema worse.
Instead, shower or bathe in lukewarm or even cool water. This is more likely to soothe the skin and reduce flare-ups.
If you shower at a gym or fitness center, be sure to use your own shampoo or body wash products that you know are eczema-safe.
Living with eczema requires a good moisturizing routine. Moisturizers are the first-line therapy in treating eczema. They help protect the outer layer of the skin by sealing in moisture and combating dryness. They help protect against allergens, irritants and bacteria. And they soothe the skin for long-lasting hydration.
It’s recommended that moisturizers be applied before and after exercise. Apply the moisturizer before the skin dries fully. Ointments, which have the highest oil content, are the most effective at sealing in moisture.
If you take a shower after exercise, follow the same eczema skin care routine you use when you bathe normally. Rehydrate the skin with a short shower or bath, soak in lukewarm water to allow the water to absorb; pat dry the skin – don’t rub; use a moisturizer immediately to seal in the wetness. This is the “soak-and-seal” method.
Talk to your doctor about the right moisturizing routine and products to best manage your eczema. In general, use fragrance-free, dye-free or clear ointments. Lotions contain too much water or alcohol and easily evaporate, while some creams have preservatives or fragrances to which you may be sensitive. Petroleum jelly may be messy but for many it’s the best solution.
Re-evaluate your exercise and eczema plans
You’re right in the middle of a workout and you feel it – the itching, burning sensitive skin of eczema. Don’t hesitate to take a break from working out so you don’t make it worse. Moisturize the affected skin if needed.
It also might be the time to reconsider your exercise routine. If you do high-impact or intense exercise, you may want to switch to a low-impact exercise. For example, if you jog regularly, switch up to walking. Consider yoga, karate or tai chi.
If you work out at a fitness club, consult with an instructor about which exercise programs or classes could be most beneficial for you.
Are you having non-stop flare-ups that prevent you from doing even light exercise? If so, it is time to make an appointment with an allergist or dermatologist to consider your treatment options.
Is swimming safe for people with eczema?
Swimming is one of the best low-impact exercises for your body. It works out the entire body and can keep you cool at the same time. For people with eczema, pool water may provide extra benefits.
Swimming in chlorinated pools can be helpful for many people with eczema. It can remove bacteria from the skin and help your eczema to heal. It is similar to taking a bleach bath, which is sometimes prescribed to relieve eczema symptoms. Chlorine is just a stronger form of bleach.
If you plan to go swimming in a chlorinated pool, moisturize first. After swimming, take a short shower. Rinse with fresh water to remove the chlorine from your skin; then apply moisturizer again.
If you’re not sure if swimming is good for your eczema, take a quick dip first. If you have a bad reaction to the chlorine, then don’t go back in. If you find swimming in chlorinate pools dries out and irritates your skin, it may be best to skip it at this time.
Is it safe to swim in the ocean if you have eczema?
Some people find the salt water of the ocean can soothe the skin. Others say it irritates the skin. More research is needed on this topic. Meantime, it’s best to listen to your body if swimming in the ocean is irritating your skin.
Similar to pools, be sure to apply a barrier cream before and after swimming. Use a sunscreen lotion as well – as long as it does not further irritate the skin.
Purvi Parikh, MD, FACAAI is an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist at Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill in New York City. She is on faculty as Clinical Assistant Professor in both departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.