Is your gym routine giving you a skin condition?

Young men are more susceptible to pityriasis versicolor, a skin infection caused by yeast  - PHN
Young men are more susceptible to pityriasis versicolor, a skin infection caused by yeast - PHN

NHS statistics show hospital diagnoses of dermatitis and eczema are on the rise, particularly among millennials - and gym wear is partly to blame. Tight clothing, with poor breathability trapping in heat and sweat makes for fertile ground for yeasts, fungi and bacteria to multiply. Skin infections, increasingly, are the outcome. 

Reports centre mainly on women's gym clothing; you're more likely to see mentions of sports bras and leggings than male gym wear. Men's health and fitness magazines focus on muscles, with discussion of nefarious side effects put to one side. We know all about thrush, the yeast infection that affects primarily women but men too. But what of the skin problems becoming more common in young men? 

After recently experiencing skin problems, I wanted to find out more about why skin infections are prevalent in men in their 20s. With the exception of athlete's foot - which troubles almost one in six Brits - there are many afflictions I'd never heard of, highlighting how marginalised they are in public discourse. 

The ever-growing popularity of exercising, be it gym work, cycling, yoga and pilates or running, is an excellent thing, for many obvious reasons. But exercise can lead to ripe conditions for incubating infections. 

A person with pityriasis versicolor - Credit: Science Photo Library 
Pityriasis versicolor can leave you with permanent skin discolouration Credit: Science Photo Library

"Men are more gym-obsessed than ever, and this significantly applies to men in their 20s", says Dr Kirsty Lau, dermatologist and GP at GPDQ, a doctor-on-demand app. "With young men exercising regularly, they are more prone to sweating. Men's sportswear also contributes to increased sweating as they are often tight and made from artificial, non-breathable material." 

When the body heats up and sweats, leaving it for too long can cause yeast to accumulate on the skin. Many of us don't shower straight after a workout (sounds familiar), but the extra minutes between gym and shower can be crucial. 

Dr Sweta Rai of the British Association of Dermatologists explains: "I definitely see more men with exercise-related infections than women. It could be that they sweat more than women, or due to behavioral practices. There isn't enough hard evidence. But at my clinical practice exercise-induced skin problems are more common in men."  

One condition the experts are seeing more of is pityriasis versicolor, which is caused by a yeast called Malassezia. The yeast is found on 90pc of adults, and usually lives on us without a problem. But warm environments, excessive sweat, and oily skin make us more susceptible - specially younger men. Around one in 100 Brits have the condition, which isn't dangerous but can lead to permanent discolouration. 

man with skin infections - Credit: Science Photo Library
Seeing a specialist early is essential to prevent pigmentory change Credit: Science Photo Library

"It's a condition we often see in gym goers", explains Dr Rai, "particularly in young men who do a lot of muscle pumping and don't necessarily shower before leaving the gym. The yeast can accumulate on your skin, causing a pink scaley rash. It can turn brown and leave you with permanent pigmentory change in the chest, arms and back. You can absolutely treat it in the early stages, but if it's already stained the skin it's very hard to treat."   

Pityriasis versicolor isn't the only skin condition exercisers should be wary of. Athlete's foot, also more common in men, is easily picked up and can spread quickly - jock itch, a fungal infection around the groin, is the same fungus found in nail infections. Damp, contaminated gym floors are a hazard, as are communal shower areas, swimming pools and saunas. Anabolic steroids can lead to acne on the face, chest and back, not uncommon in bodybuilders. While excess sweat and trappage of sweat can block hair follicles, causing folliculitis. 

According to Dr Rai, these infections aren't dangerous. "But infections can obviously spread. It can be itchy and uncomfortable, and some fungus and yeast can cause discolouration. Any infection that goes into the bloodstream can be dangerous, but that's rare. Pityarisis virsicolor isn't harmful, but it can cause a cosmetic concern."

The best medicines, as always, are preventative. "Always wear clean kit, and have breathable clothing", Rai continues. "Definitely shower afterwards and protect your skin by moisturising. If you've had an infection in the past, wash your clothes at high temperatures and air dry them to kill any fungal spores. Try not to share towels, and disinfect yoga mats."

Simple solutions, therefore, but ones we are inclined to neglect with our hectic modern lifestyles. "Things that take a minute to do can prevent infections." And if you are worried you've contracted an infection, make sure to head to your GP or a skin specialist as soon as possible.