Running Gave Me Acne: Here’s What Helped

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?

I am a stay at home mom and group fitness instructor from South Texas. I love reading, wine, and travel. I write about trends, injury prevention and maintenance, and satire. I am training to break 1:30 in the half marathon sometime soon, and for the 2017 Boston Marathon.

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  1. YES! Love the product reviews. Mine crops up particularly along my hairline, which helped me realize it was the sweaty shirt and hands touching my face. I use Simple Micellar wipes to remove all my makeup before I run, and I try to wash or wipe my face again immediately after (plus chest). I also recently switched to Clinique’s 3-step system plus the sonic brush and that seems to be really really really helping. Clinique also makes a concealer with salicylic acid that works great when acne does pop up.

    1. Thought as an adult acne would be a thing of the past and wow was I wrong! Some things I’ve found that work for me are PanOxyl (found in a drugstore) which is the most concentrated of drugstore brands. Also Lush makes some great natural products! Cosmetic warrior face mask helps and also fresh pharmacy soap. I also carry neutrogena cleansing wipes and use them is unable to wash my face or shower immediately after a workout.

  2. My neighbor sells Rodan Fields stuff and tried to sell me some,HAAAAAA?! I told her when she starts giving it away I’ll try it. Neutrogena products seem to work great for me and lots of Clearsil and sleep. Yes, when I get great sleep my skin looks its best.

  3. After running, I use Cetaphil. It is super cheap and gentle. In the shower I alternate days between Cetaphil and good old St. Ives Apricot scrub (which the teenager in me still loves but is too harsh for every day use, at least for me). For really bad zits that are stubborn and won’t go away, I have found dabbing them with plain old rubbing alcohol in the morning and at night dries them up really fast. This was a trick my mom taught me in high school. This might not be a good idea for people with sensitive skin. Also, make sure it stays on the zit otherwise the rest of your face will probably hate you.

  4. Most of my facial acne tends to pop up along my jawline which is hormonal in cause- though it does tend to be milder when I’m better about wiping my face down before I run. But running certainly affects my shoulders and back acne way more. Showering immediately after a run definitely helps, but isn’t always feasible. I try and at least wipe down if I can.

    Using scent and dye free laundry detergent does seem to help, but I would also be interested in an acne friendly shampoo that still gets my hair clean. I know that the sweat dripping down from my head doesn’t help!

    1. Mine is on my jawline/neck, plus it started when I was pregnant with my youngest, so I think mine is hormonal too. Yet another fun side effect of mid-thirties hormones!

  5. If I get any, they’re usually on my scalp somewhere. Ew. It’s nice no one can see them, but they gross me out. I’m almost 42 so hopefully my face zits are over. I only rarely get a little one if I use high powered anti-wrinkle products too frequently.

  6. In general I have found the simpler I keep my skin care regimen, the better. Also, I’m definitely a lotions and potions gal, but a trip to the dermatologist will probably give you much better outcome and will probably be cheaper in the long run than buying a bunch of different things at the drug store that won’t work all that well. But overall, I have to say, the best acne treatment I’ve ever tried is the birth control pill, since acne is usually hormone-induced, not the result of dirt or sweat.. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m gonna stay on my pill till the day they have to drag it out of my post-menopausal hands :o)

    1. Yes yes on the pill. I never had skin issues as a teen, but my face exploded with acne in my mid 30s. Went on the pill and my face is completely clear.

      1. Same here – I was so dejected, early signs of wrinkles AND acne like a 13-year-old. Then I started back on the pill and ta-da! Problem solved. I mean the wrinkles are still there, but those are expected.

      1. I went on Seasonale for a while and unfortunately had to go back to the “regular” monthly cycle pill. I was bummed it didn’t work well for me (sometimes I would literally spot for 30 days straight… how annoying is that when the whole point is not to have to worry about such things). Was fine with the skin situation though. I hope it works well for you!

  7. In the past year I have been MUCH better about washing my face before and after a run and using sunscreen when running outdoors (because MELASMA). Luckily, all of my adulthood acne mostly happened in my 20’s. I use Retin A regularly, so it’s possible that is keeping the zits at bay.

    Some days I want to travel back to the simpler times in high school where EVERYBODY had the same skin care routine: Neutrogena cold cream, a healthy dose of Sea Breeze to burn any oils in your face, and at night, ample dots of Clearasil. 🙂

    1. For us it was noxema and sea breeze, a combination that today would make the skin peel right off my face!

  8. ARgh. I also struggle with this. I went to a dermatologist last year for it and was given a multitude of VERY expensive topicals to try and a prescription for spiranoloactone. I struggled using this drug AND training for a marathon – it is a diuretic and although many people have had success with it, it was not helping me. Ziana was a topical that did help a bit but what really helped me was dialing back the running. I seem to be ok running/training for up to a half marathon, but as soon as I enter marathon training territory, all hell breaks loose. Here I am 7 weeks out from running a marathon, and you guessed it, my skin is subpar. I do like the Jason Gentle Basics cleanser and lotion as I have sensitive dry skin as well. (side note, how do you have dry skin AND acne?!?!? argh!!!)

    1. I was JUST talking to someone about spiro…she said it worked for her but mentioned the diuretic issue, which would be tough. And my skin is dry and acne prone too! Skin twins!

  9. Ugh, I definitely have this, especially on my back in summer :/ Yes to changing out of sweaty clothes asap, that helps a lot.

    I would just like to make a plug for dermatologist visits, if at all affordable, because someone struggling with acne may actually have a different issue like rosacea that won’t be helped by over the counter treatments.

  10. Ugh. I’ve always had acne and you’re right, running makes it worse. I was put on a no running restriction while pregnant and I actually had clear skin for the first time ever.

    That said, I’ve a few solutions that have helped without giving up running:

    1.) Vinegar rinse running clothes and towels to get rid of bacteria. Our old running stuff is loaded with bacteria and I personally don’t like killing tech gear with hot water. Vinegar is the compromise. You just throw some in during the rinse cycle on your wash. No, clothes don’t smell like vinegar afterward.
    2.) I totally agree with strip clothes right after the run and rinse off. If you’re working this can be hard. Bring a clean wash cloth with your gym clothes. Yes, a new one every time. Baby wipes can aggravate acne, as you mentioned.
    3.) If you like loofas, make sure you throw them in the hot water wash with whites. Again, bacteria.
    4.) Facial products- I’m with you. I’ve tried everything at every price level. Right now I’m acne free with Dermatologica’s ultra sensitive line.
    5.) If you have money left after those other suggestions, scheduling facials monthly seems to keep skin happy when it wants to explode (I’m looking at you, pms).

    Beyond that, you’re right. Running is too important to give up over a few zits. If acne is the price of sanity, I’ll pay it.

    1. I thought that the lack of running during my pregnancy would help my acne…and it did for a little while. But then the whole adage of having a baby girl steal your beauty and make you break out more came true for me.

      Good call on the vinegar to washing running clothes- I have heard that before but always forget to actually do it!

  11. I’m encouraged that so many people are suffering the same way I am, if that’s not a mean thing to say. Running definitely gives me spots. Thanks for the tip about washing faces pre-run and the witch-hazel tip too!! Going to try that.

    Things that have made a difference to me are:

    – changing my washing detergent. I saw a massive difference once I switched from Gain to an expensive (sob) natural detergent like Method.

    – changing my pillow case every few nights.

    – Nuxe Lune de Miel cleanser

    – Kiehl’s Daily Reviving Concentrate, into which I added some rose geranium oil. I genuinely think this stuff is magic.

    – Acure Glowing Night Serum. These last two are oils that have definitely helped my skin.

    But you’re all right – there’s no way I’m stopping running. But hopefully I can find a balance.

  12. *sigh* 28 and still breaking out like you wouldn’t believe. I could never give up running for a clear face but I would be lying if I said it didn’t take it’s till on my security. Thanks for the read *hugs*

  13. AUGHHHH! Friggin runners acne! I have always had sensitive skin and was prone to breakouts, but being in my late 30’s I didn’t expect the crappy skin response I got when I started training for my first marathon. Both my face and back started breaking out shortly after really getting into the nitty gritty of my training routine and I can’t wait to run this marathon and hopefully get my almost blemish free skin back! I too feel like I have tried EVERYTHING!! I am so glad you wrote about R&F because if this Differin doesn’t work that was going to be my next step, but the price tag is definitely a deterrent. Good luck with your skin issues and here’s to you breaking your 1:30 half marathon!!

  14. My breakouts get much worse during summer. There’s a minor improvement come wintertime, but nothing seems to be able to contain the facial apocalypse I’m experiencing.

    I’ve tried many skin care routines and products–to no avail. Since it’s running that’s gifted me with this nasty situation, the only solution is to stop running, which is of course impossible. I’d rather be zitten alive than stop hitting the gravel!

  15. I was so happy to find this article! I have had near perfect skin my whole life, only the rare stress induced pimple. I never worried about washing my face, taking off my makeup before bed, or having any skin sensitivity. Probably when I was 24-25 I started washing my face more regularly and removing my makeup before bed, but I still wasn’t having any skin issues. Now I’m 26 and I’m constantly getting a ton of pimples mainly on my chin/forehead/hairline area. The only thing I could think of that changed to cause this was me becoming a regular runner almost a year ago now (run streak day 275, and currently training for my first half marathon!). I’ve also noticed that now I do often have dry and sensitive skin. I have tried some face washes and creams but I think they tend to dry me out. I am going to try using the witch hazel since someone mentioned that it clears your pores without drying you out, along with a few other remedies mentioned. While this acne stuff sucks, I would so not give up running. It has given me something to constantly work on, goals to work towards, and a real sense of accomplishment as well as amazement at what my body is capable of.