Does Exercise Help with Acne? We Tried It Out Ourselves

Research shows that the presence of acne is majorly related to two things: genetics and lifestyle. In this article, we deep dive into whether exercise can help acne and show photo results in our own exercise experiment.

We also chatted with Dr. Aegean Chan (@draegeanchan), an adjunct professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and a Board certified dermatologist. Dr. Chan offers her medical expertise on the relationship between exercise and acne below.

Table of Contents

  1. What causes acne
  2. What happens in your skin when you exercise
  3. Exercise Experiment
  4. Conclusion

So, what causes acne?

Generally, we associate acne with a change in oils during puberty but adult acne can be equally as stubborn. The most direct factors that cause acne, according to the Harvard Health Blog, are: “excess oil production, pores becoming clogged by ‘sticky’ skin cells, bacteria, and inflammation.”

But the list doesn’t end there. Indirect factors like stress, hormonal changes (think period acne), and diet also play a part in the appearance of skin.

The direct factors are easy enough to combat by seeking out non-comedogenic skincare products with gentle ingredients. However, the indirect factors are a bit trickier to identify and solve.

What Happens to Skin When you Exercise?

One of the most notable side effects for the skin when you exercise is, of course, sweat. The increase in temperature and clogging of pores that comes with being active can be problematic for skin, particularly if you are wearing makeup during the workout.

In a conversation with Self magazine Dr. Rajani Katta, M.D., a clinical professor of dermatology at University of Texas Houston, says that the act of exercise itself isn’t what triggers exercise related acne–  it’s actually the pre and post habits. Therefore, habits–like going to the gym with makeup on or not taking a shower–are the real root of the problem.

To avoid habits that can cause acne while exercising, Dr. Chan suggests “wearing freshly washed gym clothes and wiping down machines and equipment. Working out with non-breathable clothing (i.e. synthetic, tight knit polyesters) traps bacteria and oil in your pores, increasing the risk of acne formation. It is better to wear breathable clothing, like loose cotton, to prevent acne formation.”

Despite the drawbacks, working out with good pre and post-exercise habits can lead to better blood circulation and lower stress levels. Both of these have indirect yet positive influences on skin health. However, it’s noting that there are no direct studies proving that exercise can help with acne.

In response to exercise’s impact on skin, Dr. Chan says, “It is possible that increased muscle mass can improve the appearance of skin by increasing surface tension and reducing the appearance of fine lines, thereby contributing to a smoother appearance of the skin.”

My Skin Experiment

Historically, I’ve always seen a clear relationship between my skin and stress. Friend fight? Acne. Apartment move? Acne. Through quarantine, I was exercising less than my typical 2-3 times a week; I wondered if upping my exercise back to a more frequent routine would impact my skin and help my acne.

For background, my skin is combination and I generally find it to be a little sensitive. My skincare routine consisted of Niacinamide in the morning and double cleansing with micellar water at night, followed by a Vitamin C serum, moisturizer, and eye cream.

My diet during this time was my average diet, which is pretty high in fruits and veggies as well as proteins, dairy, and carbs. I wasn’t eating particularly clean but not gorging myself either.

I started my experiment over the course of two weeks. My skincare routine stayed relatively the same as mentioned – except on Day 7, I started introducing glycolic acid in place of my usual Vitamin C serum.

I began this experiment right after using the The Ordinary peeling solution for two weeks, so my skin started the experiment looking like this.

Day 0 Skin

The day after, I started my activity by going on a 3 mile incline hike. In the hot weather, my heart rate definitely rose and I worked up a healthy sweat.

Day 1 Skin

The day after this, I did a killer Chloe Ting ab workout and checked in on the appearance of my skin.

Day 2 Skin

After the workout, I noticed no discernible difference in my skin acne wise apart from the typically awakened feeling your skin gets after a good sweat. 

After feeling entirely sore in my glutes and abs, I took two days off from exercise. No noticeable changes yet.

I picked up running in the morning after my two day break. 

Day 6 Skin

The appearance of my skin stayed pretty consistent, which for me is generally somewhat rare. Generally, I get a pimple or two every week or so. While I didn’t notice an active improvement in my skin, I felt it was being well maintained. I also found myself going to bed earlier and sleeping better because of the early rising to run.

Day 7 Skin

Do you know that impending doom feeling when you start sensing the dull ache of a pimple cropping up but you can’t see it yet? Yeah, that’s what this day was. You can slightly see the mark on my forehead that would soon become a nightmare pimple. Otherwise, my skin seemed relatively normal and I found myself falling asleep faster than ever. I also wonder if this break out might have been attributed to a bump of personal stress that I was experiencing Tuesday-Thursday.

On Day 8, I went on a 4.5 miles hike and found my skin much in the same position as before, save the pimple growing slightly more to a head.

I woke up on Day 9, to a second forehead. Having scratched my face during the night, the breakout was irritated and inflamed. I still went on my morning run, but not wanting to apply makeup before working out I just wore a hat to cover the zit as I ran.

Day 9 Skin (Before & After Run)

I was really surprised to find that after the run the pimple minimized in size and redness. 

On Day 10 and 11, I didn’t do any heavy cardio like running but walked about 2 miles each day.

On Day 12, I did a Chloe Ting ab workout for a short, high impact sweat. It was only a 15 minute workout but I had a premonition I’d be sore the next day.

Day 12 Skin

On Day 13, I went for a 1.5 mile run through the park in the evening.

Day 13 Skin

On Day 14, I found myself very sore still from the Chloe Ting ab workout and the previous day’s run through the hills in the park. I decided to do some light stretching before bed but didn’t raise my heart rate in any intense way.

Conclusion

So, did exercise help with acne? Generally, I saw no major impact on my skin by making my weekly exercise more frequent. Though I did not see an impact on my acne, I did experience indirect benefits to my overall well-being, particularly my sleeping habits and stress levels.

In addition, my the few breakouts I did experience were less inflamed than when I am not exercising. This leads me to believe that over a longer period of time, exercise can support clearer, healthier skin.

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