The Culprit Behind Most Skin Infections and What to Do About It

woman with acne

From eczema to acne to folliculitis (aka razor bumps) your skin is susceptible to a wide range of problems related to bacteria; leading to less serious medical problems like acne or serious infections requiring medical intervention.

If you think you’re not at risk for any of these skin problems, think again. Millions in the United States alone have suffered a type of skin infection, and when you learn the culprit behind most of them, you’ll understand why infections are so common.

The truth is, skin infections can happen pretty easily and rapidly. Your skin contains a community of different types of bacteria called microbes. Some of these microbes keep your body healthy (by producing healthy vitamins or repelling dangerous microbes) while others can cause serious problems. Generally, your skin does a good job of protecting you from the harmful ones, but if your skin is “compromised” or impaired in any way with some type of abrasion, tear or medical issue like eczema, then these microbes can cause a nasty infection.

Common Activities That Can Cause Infection

Skin abrasions don’t need to be deep or severe to cause infections; just the friction from tight clothes can compromise the skin enough for those pesky microbes to come in and cause problems.

People who workout regularly are particularly susceptible to infection for a few reasons. Those whose skin is under more duress (like wrestlers, martial arts, football, hockey etc.) are the most susceptible. For one, a hot and sweaty body provides a moist environment for these microbes to thrive and transfer to additional people. Moreover, the warm and humid environment of a gym or locker room allows these microbes to survive and are easily transmitted from person to person. Additionally, the tight-fitting clothes commonly worn for workout activities can create friction that compromises the skin in ways you might not even notice but are just enough to let in harmful bacteria.

People who engage in contact sports are at a particularly high risk of acquiring skin infections because abrasions happen more easily and infections can spread from skin-to-skin contact. In fact, according to a study at Vanderbilt University, 62% of athletes were found to be colonized with the Staph aureus bacteria, while 29% of those in contact sports (such as wrestling and football) were colonized with MRSA (methicillin resistant staph aureus) bacteria, a virulent and often antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Non-contact sport athletes were not immune; 23% of them became MRSA colonized during the study.  To put this perspective, only 5% of the general population, carry, or are colonized by MRSA. So, athletes are more prone to carry the nasty MRSA bacteria, especially in the summer months and therefore are highly susceptible to serious infections if their skin breaks down. The take home message is that athletes need to practice excellent hygiene and seek prompt medical attention for minor cuts and scrapes to avoid a serious infection. These cuts and scrapes need to be handled with good aseptic technique (proper cleansing, caregivers wearing gloves and covering the scrapes with sterile dressing and bandages).

How to Protect Yourself

It can be unsettling to learn just how easy it is to contract these infections, but the good news is, protecting yourself from them is fairly easy as well.

Use a Good Cleanser

There’s no better way to protect yourself from these infections than with an effective cleansing solution. When it comes to cleansing, not all cleansers are created equal. For best results, you need a cleanser that is tough on microbes but easy on the skin as well as free of irritants, fragrances and parabens.

Shower Within One Hour of Exercise

To really minimize your risk of infection, you should try to cleanse before and after any activity that’s likely to make you sweat, but if you only have time for one, be sure you never miss your post-activity shower. Showering reduces risk of infection by 70% and is much better than relying on wipes and sprays. It’s important that this shower happens within one hour of the activity because if you wait any longer, it becomes much harder to slough off harmful bacteria. The longer bacteria are allowed to linger on the skin, the more adherent (they feel right at home) they become. They even form something called biofilm, essentially a layer of slime, that allows the bacteria to grow, multiply and spread. You can read more about biofilm here .

Wear Loose Clothes and/or Breathable Fabrics

The best way to protect yourself from compromised skin due to tight clothing is, of course, to not wear it. But if tight clothes are unavoidable, then you want to be sure you’re wearing breathable fabrics that easily wick away moisture and sweat, and are less likely to cling to your skin.

Tie Your Hair Back

Not only does wet, sweaty hair provide a nice environment for bacteria to thrive and spread, but it can also cling to your skin and cause small abrasions that allow the bacteria in. Therefore, take care to tie your hair back during rigorous activity and try not to touch it so that you don’t further spread the bacteria that might be in there.

Other tips

Avoid sharing towels or shaving blades

Get out of wet clothes and allow your skin to dry

Carry your own body cleanser bottle

Turn a fan on in your shower so it dries completely after showering – microbes do not like dry environments


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