Running Gave Me Acne. Here’s What Helped.


Originally posted by Olive on April 5th, 2017 – one year ago today!

Running gave me a strong heart and lungs, but crappy skin.

To be fair, I can’t blame running completely for my newfound skin issues. I was lucky to have good skin in high school, so I suppose some of it might be karma. I’m sure my mid-thirties hormones shoulder some of the responsibility too.

Either way, my once-smooth face is suddenly covered with lumps, bumps, and whiteheads. I’ve tried my fair share of, and spent a small fortune on, acne-fighting products. I’m happy to share my wealth of knowledge with all of you here at Salty Nation, to hopefully spare you a little aggravation with running zits.

Whether on your forehead, your hairline, your shoulders, or back, I bet running has given you at least a zit or two over the years. Zits are caused by clogged pores and running can contribute to clogged pores in several ways, all through sweating. The sweat itself can clog your pores, but it can also cause hair products and residues to drip onto your face, shoulders, and back which can contribute to acne. Also what you use to wipe sweat off can give you zits, particularly if it’s a towel that’s been sitting in your gym bag for a month. Ew!

But the point is, I’m not the only runner to experience this problem. Here’s what I’ve tried to do about it.

A Review of the Many Products I’ve Tried

The most common active ingredients in many over-the-counter acne treatments include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids. Different brands use different amounts of each of those active ingredients. Each product’s label will list the percentage of concentration for the active ingredients. If you visit a dermatologist, she might be able to prescribe oral or topical retinoids, among other treatments, which work but also carry a hefty price tag. I’m going to stick to products that you can get and use without a doctor’s care.


If it’s good enough for Justin Bieber, it’s good enough for me, right? Except this didn’t work for me. AT. ALL. If possible, I think it made my acne worse. I was dumbfounded, honestly, given the amount of before and after pictures on their website. Come on! It even worked for Adam Levine! Proactiv must work better for teenagers who don’t have a current skin care routine.

The active ingredient is benzoyl peroxide, but in a lesser intensity than even most over the counter products, 5% versus the 10% found in Clean and Clear below.

Clean and Clear

I remember Clean and Clear from my Seventeen magazine days, and when I heard that they had an updated acne treatment I jumped on board. The active ingredients in this product are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, similar to most other acne treatment products.

Again, I think this would be most useful for teenagers in need of a consistent skin care routine (i.e. not me). Also, the products are pretty harsh, and made my skin red and sensitive on top of the acne which wasn’t much better. Next.

Rodan and Fields Unblemish

Before anyone suggests it, yes, I have tried Rodan and Fields products for my skin care issues! A friend gave me some Unblemish to try with “no pressure to buy,” and I used it consistently for a month. I don’t mean to knock it, because obviously it must work for some people, but it didn’t work for me.

The cleanser is sulfur based — ohhh! A unique ingredient! — and I had hoped this would make a difference because I hadn’t used it before, but it didn’t. The biggest drawback for me is the price: $180! That is absurd. Even if it worked, I would hesitate to pay half or even one-quarter of that.


This is another multi-product “kit”, which I think benefits people who need a consistent routine, not a runner struggling with newfound acne. The main ingredient — surprise! — is salicylic acid, which clearly helps some people but hasn’t done a whole lot for me. It made a bit of a difference, but the small size and $40 price tag made me hesitant to reorder.

(Winner!) Peter Thomas Roth

This is the regime that I am currently using, and I like it for two reasons: (1) it’s $29 and includes a wash, alpha hydroxy acid, pads for makeup removal, spot treatment, and anti-acne dots, and (2) the anti-acne dots! They’re little circular stickies you put directly on your zits, and they really make a difference in decreasing the size of your blemishes. I still have some acne, particularly around the time when I get my period, but it’s probably 25% better than it was before I started using this product. For me, that’s a pretty big improvement.

More Tips to Reduce Your Running-Related Break-outs

Other than using acne-specific products in reaction to your running acne, there are several things you can do proactively to lessen your chance of breaking out.

Wash or rinse your face before you run, especially if you’re running after work or school. This helps eliminate some of the bacteria from clogging your sweaty pores. Pimento, who also suffers from zits on her fine lines, suggests investing in some good, old-fashioned witch hazel to use in place of face wash for pre and post-run skin cleansing. It can be used to naturally clean your face without over-drying your skin, because over-washing can lead to even more zits.

Try not to wipe your sweaty face with your sweaty shirt when you run. That’s just bacteria on bacteria which is breakout city. On the treadmill, this is especially a problem, so always remember to have a clean, cotton towel in hand’s reach.

Try a hat or a headband to keep sweat off of your forehead. To really jazz it up, go all the way and get a matching wristband, too!

Change out of sweaty clothes ASAP when you finish a workout. This is particularly good advice if you struggle with acne on your back or chest.

ryan gosling running zitsLearning to Live With My Zits

What finally clicked for me was realizing that, just like I’ll never wake up with the body of Heidi Klum, I’ll likely never wake up with the photo-shopped skin of Kim Kardashian. For me, it’s futile to constantly struggle to look flawless.

I’m not a perfect person, and continually chasing physical perfection is exhausting. I’ve chosen to do what I can for my acne but not agonize over ever single spot and blemish. Plus, I invested in a great foundation and coverup for days when I’m teaching on stage or out on a date.

Yes, running gave me acne. But it also gave me self-confidence, best friends, the ability to travel to races, and an inclusion into a great community. At the end of the day, I’ll take the acne if I can keep the running.

Do you have running-related acne? Got any good tips?

Sal is a 4 year old 77 hour trail marathoner looking to whittle a few minutes off next time. Being a gastropod, Sal is neither male nor female but will accept either set of pronouns. Sal's spirit animal is the cheetah and Sal's mantra is, "What's slow to some is fast for others." Sal writes about Salty Running news.

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