5 skin conditions that commonly thrive at the gym—and how to avoid them

October 24, 2018 Providence Health Team

[6 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Even at your favorite gym, workout equipment can often be a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria.

  • Learn how you can minimize the risk of skin infections with planning and preparation.

  • A Providence dermatologist shares practical self-care tips for these skin conditions and advice on when to see a physician.

You love going to the gym to strength train, increase your heart rate and work up a sweat. And visiting the gym is definitely fostering good fitness habits. There’s a downside, though: The gym—with its heat, humidity, and communal equipment—has the ideal conditions for common fungi, bacteria, and viruses to flourish. Lurking on workout benches, weights, and treadmills, they are a real concern. But you don’t need to let it affect your fitness routine. 

With thoughtful preparation and a little extra care in the locker room, you can minimize your risk of contracting many gym-friendly skin infections. And if you do happen to catch more than an endorphin rush at the fitness center, you can, fortunately, handle most treatments quickly and easily right at home.

Here are the 5 most common skin conditions contracted at the gym.

1. Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes a scaly, itchy, red ring to form on the surface of your skin.

  • Though it can show up anywhere, it is most commonly found on the torso, upper arms or thighs. 
  • It thrives in warm, wet environments, so be on the lookout for sweaty gym equipment.

How to treat it:

2. Athlete’s foot

Don’t let the name fool you -- athlete’s foot can affect more than just the feet. 

  • In fact, this type of fungus is commonly found on the groin (aka jock itch), armpits and under the breasts. 
  • You can get athlete’s foot by walking or showering in the gym locker room without shoes or flip-flops.
  • It’s far more likely to occur from unhygienic practices like wearing the same sweaty socks to exercise several days in a row.

How to treat it:

  • Like ringworm on the skin, athlete’s foot can be treated by cleansing with antibacterial soap and applying a non-prescription antifungal medication.

3. Staph infection

Staph infections are contagious and are caused by staphylococcus bacteria. These bacteria exist on the skin or in the nose.

  • A cut, abrasion, or other damage to the skin may encourage bacterial growth, which can overcome the natural protective oils on the skin and lead to infection.
  • Wash your hands to avoid spreading germs to others, and remember to keep open wounds covered.
  • Also: It’s okay to be stingy with your towels and say “No, thanks!” to public yoga mats to avoid exposure. Sharing is caring, but not at the gym.

How to treat it:

  • If you develop skin symptoms of a serious staph infection, like stubborn sores, boils, or blisters, see a health care provider. Don’t attempt to manage it on your own at home. Staph can be dangerous if not treated promptly.
  • Possible treatments include drainage of the infected areas and antibiotics.

4. Folliculitis

Folliculitis is a type of bacterial or fungal infection that occurs when bacteria or fungi enter the hair follicles and cause inflammation. 

  • Folliculitis is a type of bacterial or fungal infection that has been associated with use of swimming pools and hot tubs
  • Rashes, bumps or pus-filled pimples are often found in hairy areas like your arms and legs.
  • Use caution at the gym pool if your skin is extra dry or irritated due to shaving or sticky bandages.

How to treat it:

  • Wash the infected area with warm soapy water.
  • Pat dry and apply an over-the-counter antibiotic or antifungal ointment directly on to the spot or spots.
  • Remember: Antibiotics will work on bacterial infections but not on fungal infections; likewise, antifungals will not work on bacterial folliculitis.
  • If there are no signs of improvement after a few days of at-home treatments, seek medical attention.

5. Plantar warts

Plantar warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), but it’s a different strain than the one that causes genital warts.

  • They appear as callus-like spots on the heel, ball or sole of your foot. It may be speckled with tiny black dots, which are the result of dried blood vessels feeding the virus. 
  • When you have a plantar wart, you may experience pain while walking or applying pressure to the sole of your foot. 
  • To avoid them, keep your feet covered with sneakers or sandals at all times while using the gym and locker room. 
  • Also, if you have plantar warts, keep your feet covered in socks to avoid spreading them to friends and family since the warts are contagious with HPV virus.

How to treat them:

How to protect your skin at the gym

The good news is, most fungus and bacteria lurking at the gym shouldn’t cause any issues as long as you’re diligent about a few key things. Take a step in the right direction to avoid athlete’s foot and other nasty skin conditions by following these simple steps:

Cover up cuts and scrapes.

  • Before your workout, be sure to clean and cover any cuts or scrapes to avoid contamination.

Maintain a barrier.

  • Whether by wearing long sleeves and pants or a towel, keep a layer of material between your skin and public gym equipment.
  • Always wear something on your feet, especially in the locker room (e.g., flip-flops, shower shoes, or street shoes).

Practice smart hygiene.

  • Wash your hands before and after working out (or use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol).
  • Use sprays or wipes to disinfect gym equipment before and after you use it.

'Look at Me' (Hand Hygiene):

Air out.

  • Promptly remove sweaty clothes, undergarments, socks, and shoes following a workout.
  • Stash dirty workout clothes in a plastic bag separate from the rest of your gym bag belongings.

Clean up.

  • Make showering with warm soapy water a priority after exercising, using a hot tub or swimming pool. Unwashed sweaty skin can be a breeding ground for fungi.

Do your laundry.

  • Wash gym clothes as soon as possible following a workout to avoid the growth of any fungus or bacteria that may be lurking on them.
  • When laundering, use the warmest temperature level listed on the clothing tag.

Check out more informative skin care and fitness articles.

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Find a doctor

The expert physicians at Providence can help diagnose and treat skin conditions. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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