Run Safe: Tips to Avoid Skin Damage

Running can lead to skin problems

Credits: Pixabay

Running is an excellent way to exercise, improve cardiovascular health and fitness, and clear the mind.  Running promotes blood flow to the skin, giving that healthy “glow,” provides nutrients to the skin cells, and may even prevent signs of aging.[1] Sweating during running and other physical activities can also help the skin excrete toxins.[2,3]

However, outdoor running can be rough on your skin.  There are ways to minimize the damage and continue to enjoy running, and other outdoor activities. 


Protect Yourself from Harmful Sun Damage

First and foremost, the most critical and skin-protecting measure you can take is to protect your skin from ultraviolet rays from the sun.  In two scientific studies, marathon runners were found to have significantly more precancerous skin lesions, sun spots, and nonmelanoma skin cancer lesions than other types of athletes.  These signs put the marathon runners at much higher risk for malignant melanoma.[4,5] In an interview on with NYC dermatologist Elizabeth K. Hale, she described the high number of runners she sees in her office with skin cancer.[6]  The American Academy of Dermatology (ADD) recommends the following guidelines:[7]

  • Diligently use a broad-spectrum (covers UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen on all sun-exposed areas every day.  
  • Look for sunscreen that is water-resistant, with an SPF of 30 or higher.   There is no specific testing for sweat resistance of sunscreen, and it is recommended to reapply sunscreen after sweating.[8]
  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before heading out on your run and reapply every 2 hours.  Consider a second coat of sunscreen after 15 minutes in order to create a thicker protective layer on the skin.
  • Don’t forget to generously coat your face, ears, neck, hairlines, and top of the head if you are balding or bald with sunscreen.  If you are concerned about breaking out, look for oil-free sunscreen designed for sensitive skin.  Oil-free sunscreen may have a greater propensity to run off the skin with sweat, so be sure to reapply diligently after sweating.
  • Wear protective clothing. Cover as much skin as possible, and consider investing in clothing that is made with ultraviolet protecting fabric.[9]
  • Avoid running between 10am-4pm. Try to go running either early in the morning, or in the evening in order to avoid the sun when it is shining brightest.


Don’t Neglect Your Feet

Runners, especially long-distance runners, tend to overwork their feet.  Runners often have uncomfortable blisters, calluses, and even fungal infections.  The combination of moisture and friction can generate the perfect environment for feet problems. The constant moisture is a perfect home for fungus to grow.[6] Blisters can be extremely painful and are common even in the most experienced runners.  In a clinical study of long-distance runners wearing either acrylic fiber socks or cotton socks, those wearing the acrylic fiber socks had far fewer blisters.[10]

  • Avoid cotton socks– opt for wool, nylon or polypropylene socks for long runs.  These type of socks will help wick moisture away from the feet and decrease the risk for blisters.[6] Apply petroleum to problem areas before a run to help decrease friction.  When a blister pops up, dermatologists recommend to cover the area, use “donut-shaped” padding, and refrain from popping the blister, which could lead to infection.[11]
  • Wear shoes that fit- shoes should not be too snug or too loose.  The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society recommends having your feet measured, and don’t plan on shoes “stretching out” over time, but instead buy shoes that fit properly at the time of purchase.  Always walk a few laps around the store to ensure that your new shoes are a proper fit.[12]


Keep Your Skin Clear

Skin problems amongst runners is common; in fact, 20% of medical complaints amongst marathon runners are skin problems.[13]  Heat, sweat, and friction can predispose long distance runners to skin conditions, such as acne and folliculitis.[14] When bacteria that naturally live on the skin get trapped in pores that become clogged with oil and dead skin cells, acne can result.  Standard therapies for acne include topical treatments and oral antibiotics for refractory cases.[15] Some runners may notice painful bumps or pustules in areas of pressure.  Staphylococcus Aureus MRSA infections are resistant to many antibiotics, and MRSA infections are increasing amongst athletes.[16] 

  • The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests washing face twice per day, and especially after sweating.[17]
  • If your skin fails to clear up, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist.


Conquer Chafing

Friction is the culprit in many skin issues in runners, including uncomfortable chafing.  Next to blisters, chafing is an extremely common skin problem in runners when skin rubs against skin or clothing.[18]  Between the thighs, in the groin areas, in the armpits, and around the nipples are particularly common areas for chafing to occur. 

  • Wear proper clothing – when exercising it is better to wear loose-fitting clothing that can wick moisture. Cotton may soak sweat and lead to more friction and chafed skin. However, if you prefer to exercise in cotton, some cotton fabrics used in athletic wears is designed specifically to wick away sweat and moisture. 
  • Use powders or pastes – applying powders such as baby powder or zinc oxide powder or paste on areas that get the sweatiest can help prevent chafing. 
  • Petroleum jelly is an easy to find and inexpensive product that can be applied to affected areas to prevent chafing.[19]
  • Zinc oxide creams can reduce friction and chafing. 
  • Commercial anti-chafing creams can be purchased and are commonly a water-based talc powder with added essential oils.  Many bikers and long-distance runners utilize these products to provide relief from chafing.


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19.    AAD. Skin care on a budget. Accessed September 7, 2016.