Organs are groups of tissues that work together towards a common purpose; the skin is reputed to be the human body’s largest organ. The skin actually participates in bodily processes in a number of different ways. A primary function is the protection of the internal body against damage and injury. The skin is also key in containing vital fluids, such as blood and water. One function of the skin that many of us notice on a regular basis is the role that it plays in regulating body temperature. When a person begins to overheat, the body releases sweat up the sweat ducts to the skin’s surface. When that surface sweat evaporates, the process removes latent heat from the body, thus cooling it.
There are two primary types of sweat glands, but only one kind that sounds like it could really play a role in preventing or creating acne. Coiled deep below the skin, the eccrine sweat glands are found over nearly the entire surface of the body, especially on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and the forehead. These glands are the ones that are responsible for temperature regulation, and are activated through heat and physical activity. The sweat excreted by the eccrine glands is composed primarily of water, but also contains sodium chloride (salt), and small amounts of fatty materials, urea, and other cellular wastes.
So if sweating does remove wastes from the body, does it actually play a role in preventing acne breakouts? Not exactly, seems to be the general consensus. Acne is often called a disorder of the sebaceous glands, created when a variety of conditions occur together. In healthy skin, natural oils are produced in the sebaceous glands, and travel to the skin’s surface via hair follicles. When dead skin cells, excess sebum, or other factors plug those pores, sebum production continues, swelling the hair follicle. Naturally occurring skin bacteria are also trapped within the plugged follicle, and the warm, moist environment allows them to reproduce quickly, creating an inflammatory effect on the cell and surrounding tissue.
While sweating does remove toxins from the body, reports suggest that these toxins are not from the skin pores, but rather from cells and capillaries deeper under the skin. This means that sweat probably doesn’t contribute to acne prevention. So does it actually cause acne, then? Reports suggest that sweat doesn’t cause acne directly, but could still play a role in breakouts. The primary reason is that the salts in sweat can aggravate existing acne or acne-prone skin. Another possible way that sweating could contribute to acne is through bacteria. Bacteria thrive in sweaty conditions, and if sweat is left on the face or body after exercise, those bacteria could work their way into pores, irritating the skin and leading to acne.
In theory, it should be fairly easy to avoid the link between acne and exercise. Recommendations include keeping hair tied back off the face and wearing loose clothing while exercising, so that bacteria on the back, chest, and arms aren’t trapped in direct contact with the skin. Loose clothing also lessens the irritation caused by friction. Some people suggest that drinking water is preferable to many electrolyte-rich sports drinks which are thought to increase the salts being sweated out onto the skin. Finally, a good and easy plan is to shower as soon as possible after exercising, using an antibacterial soap. This should bring the natural bacterial load of the skin back to a normal, balanced count, and help remove any dead skin cells that could contribute to acne.