Wait, Should I Wash My Face Before or After Working Out?
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When it comes to rolling out of bed for that early morning sweat session, pretty much anything that makes life more complicated is almost guaranteed to make me press the snooze button.
So adding in multi-step skincare routine (I’m looking at you, K Beauty) is hardly my ideal if I’m heading for the gym first thing in the morning.
But since all that sweat mixed with makeup, oil and other people’s bacteria from shared equipment (yummy) can make for something of a breeding ground for breakouts, I generally try to make some attempt at looking after skin pre and post workout.
There’s one question I’ve overlooked though: if I really want to keep skin healthy (and in turn get the maximum results from my gym sess), should I be washing my face before or after a workout- or both?
I asked dermatologist Dr Saulis Banionis and celebrity aesthetician Ian Michael Crumm for their thoughts on the great workout-skincare debate.
The short answer
While everyone has different skin types, it turns out washing your face before working out is one of the best ways to keep skin healthy.
Dr Banionis tells us, “Cleansing your face before a workout helps remove dirt, sweat, and other impurities that may have accumulated on your skin throughout the day. This can help prevent clogged pores and breakouts.”
Put simply, starting with a fresh face will help reduce the amount of sweat and bacteria your skin is exposed to and remove any debris (like makeup) that could clog your pores.
Avoid any pre-workout skincare panic by keeping a gentle cleanser or micellar water in your gym bag for easy access. You can also pack hair products like clips or a headband to keep your hair out of your face while sweating it out.
Why it’s so important to have clean skin working out
It turns out there are a load of good reasons to make sure skin is clean pre-workout.
Preventing blocked pores
Ian tells us, “During a workout, sweat can mix with dirt and bacteria, potentially clogging pores and causing breakouts.”
Add heavy makeup into the mix and we’re essentially creating a breeding ground for bacteria and blocked pores.
Enhanced sweat evaporation
Dr Banionis explains, “When you exercise, your body produces sweat to cool down. Cleansing your face before a workout can help remove any excess oils, makeup, or skincare products, allowing sweat to evaporate more easily and prevent clogged pores.”
Better skincare absorption
As well as helping to prevent workouts, as it turns out clean pre-workout skin can actually help you achieve that glow.
Dr Banionis tells us, “If you follow a skincare routine that involves applying serums, moisturisers, or other products, cleansing your face before a workout ensures that you have a clean canvas for better absorption of these products after your workout.”
Avoiding skin irritation
“Certain skincare products, especially those containing active ingredients like acids or retinol, can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight and heat,” says Dr Banionis.
He explains, “Cleansing your face before exercising can help remove these products and reduce the risk of irritation or discomfort during your workout.”
That means skipping the harsher ingredients- like salicylic acid, glycolic acid etc- before your workout.
Quick tips for cleansing before working out
Exactly how you cleanse your skin will depend on your own skin type and the time of day you work out, however.
If you’re exercising in the morning, try to go makeup free. Letting your skin breathe is key, potentially preventing a series of different skin issues.
Equally, if you have particularly sensitive skin don’t feel you have to go heavy on the cleansers.
Dr Banionis explains, “Everyone’s skin is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.
“If you have sensitive or dry skin, you may prefer to splash your face with water or use a gentle cleanser before exercising, rather than stripping your skin of its natural oils. Experiment and find a routine that works best for your skin type and preferences.”
There are some hard and fast rules everyone should be following though when it comes to gym skincare.
- Avoid heavy moisturisers as these will only make you sweat more and potentially clog pores
- Use a headband or clips to keep hair out from your face (and prevent any oils from your hair getting in pores)
- Choose sweat-wicking fabrics for your workout clothes
- Apply water-resistant sunscreen if exercising outdoors
Lastly, avoiding harsh ingredients like exfoliating beads or alcohol-based cleansers is important unless directed by a doctor or skincare professional.
These can disrupt the skin’s barrier and lead to irritation, so try to stick with gentle formulas that won’t strip away your natural oils.
As it turns out thought, it’s just as important to take care of your skin after a workout as it is before, especially if you’re exercising with shared equipment.
We may not want to think about it, but other people’s sweat and dead cells can linger on gym equipment, causing bacteria to build up.
This can lead to not only breakouts from sweat residue but bacterial infections and fungal infections- kind of the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve with all that hard work.
“‘Use a medicated cleanser if you have a prescription,’ he says. ‘Otherwise, try an over-the-counter cleanser that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.'”
Ian explains, “When it comes to working out, washing your face after exercising is generally recommended.”
He adds, “Cleansing your face after working out helps remove sweat, oil, and impurities that may have accumulated, keeping your skin clean and minimising the chances of post-workout skin issues.”
Follow the steps below to make the most of that post-workout glow.
Step 1. Cleanse with a gentle face wash, toner or pads (like salicylic acid pads if you have acne-prone skin)
Step 2. Dry skin with a clean towel (make sure it’s not the same towel you used while exercising- that one needs to be washed with detergent or bleach before being used again)
Step 3. Your skin is now ready to absorb any other treatments you normally use so take the opportunity to apply a face mask while drying hair/getting dressed
Step 4. Next, apply any leave-on serums of treatments you normally use, like benzoyl peroxide, vitamin C or other antioxidant serums
Step 5. Finish with a lightweight moisturiser and broad-spectrum sunscreen
Does this mean you’ll end up washing your face up to 3 times a day?
But if I’m cleansing before and after working- and then later on that evening too- does that mean I’ll end up washing my face 3 times a day?
As Dr Banionis says, everyone’s skin is different and some people may just splash their face with water before working out and then use a gentle toner after; not everyone will end up cleansing multiple times.
Here are some of the best alternatives to harsh face washes.
These types of cleansers are great for removing tough makeup, sunscreen, and sweat while keeping your skin hydrated. An oil cleanser can be used at the beginning of your routine to remove makeup and dirt, followed by a moisturiser.
These pads are great for exfoliating the skin and prepping it for working out as well as your further skincare steps. Toner pads can be used in the morning or at night and are easy to store in your gym bag. Keep in mind that they can contain harsh ingredients which can be irritating, so either go for gentle formulas or use them sparingly if you have sensitive skin.
There are plenty of gentle cleansers which help remove dirt, sweat, and oil from the skin without stripping it.
And if you do have sensitive or acne-prone skin, make sure to use lukewarm water when washing your face rather than hot or excessively cool water, both of which can irritate.
What if you forgot to cleanse before working out?
If you’ve finished your workout only to realise you didn’t pre-cleanse beforehand, you can still try to prevent makeup from clogging your pores.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to dab sweat away with a clean towel or tissue paper during your workout instead of wiping it.
This should help keep any makeup or dirt from getting further into your pores.
Our skin is a natural protective barrier, and taking a few extra steps before exercising to keep it nourished while keeping the rest of me healthy doesn’t seem like too much of an ask.
Plus, as it turns outs, a pre-workout skincare routine doesn’t need to be complicated; a light cleanser or toner can make all the difference.
On the downside, I’m running out of excuses to miss that early morning run!
Meet the experts
Dr Saulis Banionis is board certified by The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and was trained extensively in aesthetic and regenerative medicine to become an expert in anti-ageing medicine. He has also worked as a Medical Expert for the Florida Board of Medicine.
Ian Michael Crumm is a celebrity aesthetician and beauty expert and is co-host of the BeautyCurious podcast with Dr Elyse Love. Ian is known for his passion for skincare and sun safety and is actively involved in philanthropic efforts to promote skin cancer awareness, and believes that #ProtectedSkinWins.