Tina Hu spends five to six days a week at the gym hitting the Stairmaster, lifting weights, or running outside. When she’s not working out, she’s hiking or doing recreational sports or swimming.
It’s easy to see that Hu, 28, of Vancouver, British Columbia, loves to work out. She’s also been dealing with eczema since she was a baby. It’s gotten better as she’s gotten older, but she’s also learned how to keep her symptoms under control so she can stay fit and healthy.
Hu isn’t alone in her quest to avoid a post-workout flare-up. While exercise is great for your body, it can wreak havoc on your skin if you have eczema. Sweat can be very irritating to the skin because the sodium found in sweat can sting and cause skin with eczema to break out in an itchy rash.
“Now that I’ve mostly grown out of eczema I know that when I’m working out, that even if sweat is making me itchy, not to scratch or touch it. If I do, it’ll become a rash as soon as I’m done,” Hu said.
Prepping for your work out
There are a few simple steps you can take to keep eczema under control while exercising, according to Dr. Cheryl Lee Eberting, a Utah-based dermatologist who is a former clinical research fellow of the Dermatology Branch of the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health.
In a phone interview with HealthCentral, Eberting recommended applying a moisturizer — one without harmful chemicals and that will protect the skin barrier — before and after workouts. (Eberting has developed a skin care product line that has been approved by the National Eczema Association.)
Make sure you dress appropriately, Eberting said. Workout clothes should be loose fitting and cotton. Avoid tight or constrictive clothes that feel rough or rub the skin during a workout.
Remember to bring your own towel and make sure you’ve washed it using a mild detergent and avoid using dryer sheets or softeners as these include common allergens. During your workout, pat your skin to gently wipe away sweat.
Explore your workout options
Sometimes working out with eczema is a compromise. There may be times that your choice of exercise can prove problematic for your skin. Consider doing a lower-impact exercise like yoga or Pilates, which will help increase your mobility and strength without causing your body to become overly heated.
“I’ve done both (yoga and Pilates) and neither causes any irritation,” Tina Hu said. “However, neither provided me with the workout I want.”
Another workout option is swimming. However, the chlorine used in pools can trigger an eczema outbreak for some people.
Another issue is that pool water has a higher pH that can be problematic for skin, Eberting said. People with eczema have skin that already has a higher-than-normal pH, so it needs to be brought to a lower pH, she said. A swimming pool may exacerbate this issue.
It’s okay to swim in chlorinated pool water, just make sure to shower immediately afterward, Eberting suggested.
Hit the showers
Finishing your workout with a shower keeps sweat from sitting on your skin and causing irritation, Eberting said. Shower with lukewarm water and avoid harsh soaps that have the ingredient Cocamidopropyl betaine or any kind of sulfates. Use only gentle cleansers and avoid lathering up all over.
“It’s better to just rinse off with water and only use soap where you’re stinky or dirty,” Eberting said.
Be aware that the shampoo and conditioner you use may also trigger eczema, so use products that are fragrance-free and gentle. And make sure to moisturize again following your workout and shower.
That’s advice Hu also follows. “As soon as I’ve done a workout, I’ll go rinse off any sweat,” Hu said. “I always pack lotion and re-moisturize after washing, and I always have my ChapStick and a small towel on me.”
The bleach bath debate
One hot-button debate among people with eczema is if bleach baths help calm skin down or not. Some people take them, especially following a workout, believing it keeps their eczema skin free of bacteria and infection.
Earlier in her career, Eberting recommended bleach baths — but no more. (She was once known as "the mother of the dilute bleach bath," she said.)
She no longer advocates the use of bleach baths because of what she now understands about the dysfunctional skin barrier for people with eczema.
While a bleach bath does kill the bacteria on the skin, it’s also highly alkaline, so it will further throw off your skin’s proper pH, she said.
These days, she prefers the title, “mother of the diluted vinegar bath.”
“It is the bomb,” she said. “For my patients with severe eczema, I’ll have them take a vinegar bath every day.”