This is precisely why when I started getting bothersome, itchy rashes after wearing my beloved workout gear, I was horrified. How could the clothes I wear the most betray me like this? Since I just can’t stop wearing my workout clothes (I mean, duh), I needed to get to the root of the problem. After searching the internet, I realized that I was not alone in my quest to stop itching. So ladies with sensitive skin, I did the hard work and got the answers for you, you know, for the good of the sport.
The first step is to determine if your skin reaction is due to a true allergy (called contact dermatitis) or just irritation, says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network. “An allergy will usually give you a red, scaly, itchy rash, sometimes it can even be blistering and very painful, and often the rash will last even after you’ve changed,” she says. In addition, an allergic reaction often does not appear immediately, but can occur hours later, or even the next day, often giving off poison ivy-like vibrations.
On the other hand, an irritating reaction, however, usually arises while you are wearing the clothes. Chafing is usually caused by the combination of sweat and tight clothing, which is why basically every cute workout outfit out there. “When you take it off, it should go away pretty quickly,” she says. “The irritant can also cause itching, discomfort and redness, but it’s not as severe as the allergy or it goes away very quickly.”
But before you check your clothes for allergens, take a look at your laundry supplies. Dr. Parikh advises using only free and clear detergents and avoiding fabric softeners altogether, because they’re often full of ingredients that are meant to stay on clothes, but can also cause irritation when parked on clothes.
If your detergent doesn’t contain these things and you still have a reaction, it could be from the clothes themselves. Some of the allergens can be found directly on the clothing label. The sweat wear itself is often made with synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon, which tend to be less forgiving when it comes to people with sensitive skin. So keep an eye out for more natural fibers.
“A lot of clothing uses formaldehyde resin, so you can actually develop contact allergies to formaldehyde and the resins in it,” says Dr. Parikh. Formaldehyde treatments are used to make clothing waterproof, wrinkle-free, and can act as a carrier for dyes and prints. They’re usually not a big deal, but if you’re someone who’s sensitive, it can be helpful to know about them, so you can piece together what might be causing your sensitivity.
Finding workout gear without these things can be tricky, because most of it isn’t clearly labeled on clothing. But it never hurts to stick with sustainable brands like Girlfriend Collective, Outdoor Voices and Groceries Apparel. Also opt for breathable options, such as ventilated shirts and leggings with mesh inserts. “If you’re prone to sweating, be sure to change your clothes after you exercise,” says Dr. Parikh. “A lot of what makes it worse is the duration of skin contact and the pressure and tightness on the skin.”
You may be saying “well, sure,” but often people end up lounging around in their sweaty workout clothes without really thinking. As much as you’d rather just hop on the subway after a hot yoga session, waiting in line to rinse off and change can pay off in the long run. Even a few extra minutes of skin contact with sweaty gear could be what causes irritation.
When relieving an existing irritation or allergy, think about moisturizing the skin. “Depending on the severity of your reaction, sometimes just hydration can help,” says Dr. Parikh. “But sometimes you need hydrocortisone or something stronger. You can also try changing clothes or brands.“
Personally, I’ve started carrying natural body wipes and loose-fitting clothes to change into after my workouts and slather on hydrocortisone cream every night before bed. While I haven’t pinpointed the exact ingredient that makes my skin scream, it does seem to keep inflammation at bay in the meantime, and that counts for a lot.
If skin allergies aren’t your only concern, here are the doctor-approved tips to help you beat seasonal allergies, too. And we have the docket when it comes to natural laundry solutions.