Just a disclaimer, neither Skinny Yoked nor it’s editor are trained dermatologists or even scientists at that. All reviews, advice and tips provided in this article are from first-hand experiences only, take it or leave it, the choice is yours.
Acne and bodybuilding, for some, seem to go together better than peanut butter and jelly. Well, not better, but are frequently accompanied by one another. Why is this and what can be done about it?
Well, it’s actually not that complicated. Acne associated with bodybuilders and working out is due to a combination of factors including genetics, daily routine, diet and skincare regimens or lack there of.
After 12 years of dealing with acne, and 10 years of weight lifting on and off at varying intensities, I’d like to share some theories and conclusions on correlations and perhaps causations of acne as a result of a naturally oily skin type and a love of bodybuilding.
How to Deal with Gym Related Bacne
A brief overview of “me”: 27 years old Caucasian male with very oily skin and light-moderate acne depending on location and diet, living in tropical and humid Taiwan, office worker and commuter, hit the gym 5-6 days a week for 1-2 hours at a time.
Acne, especially cystic acne or body acne can be massively damaging to a persons self-confidence. Continuously breaking out simply leads to more stress and more breakouts. This guide is a comprehensive overview on how to strategically mitigate acne. It’s not a guide to eliminate it completely, but it can be greatly reduced.
Constantly being stressed and feeling depressed will then negatively affect your personal life and hinder your ability to be the best (and biggest) you can be. By dealing with acne an individual can be confident in living their life to the fullest, free of the restraints that embarrassment and being overly self-conscious impose.
Genetics Dictate but they CAN be Mitigated
I found out very early on that some people are just stuck with acne while others are not, similar to how some people are born with naturally massive calves and no matter how hard you train yours they fail to grow beyond what appear to be toothpicks with some beef jerky stretched over them.
In fact, the driver behind excess sebum is up to 81% of the equation!
The root cause for all acne is excess sebum (oil) production. Oil clogs pores, builds up, attracts dirt and sh*t to stick to your face, creates a nasty shine everywhere you go and is essentially the spawn of acne satan.
How much sebum your body produces can’t be changed, unless you alter your genetics. Just like some people have naturally strong body odor or are super hairy, some people are just “oily”.
So it’s important to note, genetics can produce tons of oil, but you can help control whether or not that excess oil results in acne problems.
Starting out with these genetics means adding the extra testosterone and sweat associated with bodybuilding and weightlifting will give you a real uphill struggle. But hey you like lifting weights, so “battles” and “struggling” are kind of your thing 😉
The Benefits of Oily Skin (Yes There Is One Big One)
Don’t forget too that it’s not all bad news, as oil does serve some benefits. If you can refrain from prematurely force-popping zits and cratering your face, oil can actually help protect skin and keep it younger looking longer. This is the opposite of people with exceptionally dry skin.
Dry skin lacks enough oil to protect it from the elements and thus ages prematurely. Think regularly conditioned/oiled leather shoes/products vs unconditioned/non-oiled leather products. With sun, wind, rain and shine, two identical leathers will look very different after just a few years of exposure and treatment or lack there of.
So just like you can curse your ectomorphic or endomorphic body type for not being the glorious endomorphic type (although that’s debatable) , you can curse your oily genes. However, don’t forget the silver lining in the fact that A.) your skin will age slower than your dryer peers and B.) excess oil is just excess oil, for acne to form there needs to be a second step, thus all hope is not lost.
Effects of Food & Supplements on Oil Production and Acne
Google “diet and acne” and you’ll find a million conflicting reports on whether what you ingest has an impact on acne development and/or severity.
Some say there is zero correlation while others claim one bite of chocolate will leave them breaking out for days. I think it’s safe to assume many of the “extreme” anecdotal evidence is probably more correlation than causation however from personal experience there is DEFINITELY a link to FOOD INGESTED and ACNE.
And why not? We are what we eat right? Eat tons of fatty sh*t and you get fat. Eat something you’re allergic to and your skin can instantly change. Eat some spicy Mexican with some cheap Mexican beer and polish it off with a couple shots of tequila and your anus skin will burn. Diet does effect skin. Case closed. Now, for gym rats, what should be avoided and what’s probably fine..
Foods & Supplements that Can Exacerbate Acne
Cheese Products: Most of my life is spent in Asia where very little cheese is consumed. Coincidentally while sebum production remains high, bad acne is relatively low compared to when I live in the U.S. When living in Wisconsin I consume cheese on nearly a daily basis, which seems to increase outbreaks while sebum levels remain the same.
This sucks because cheese, cottage cheese and milk are all great for making da gains, however it’s not the end of the world, everything in moderation and I won’t die from the occasional outbreak.
Casein Protein: This one is a real bummer as casein protein is absolutely amazing. When bulking, having a slow release protein to maximize anabolism post workout and while sleeping is a huge advantage, unfortunately for some, this author included, it also results in a dramatic increase in bad acne.
The mechanism that triggers the outbreaks must be related to an enzyme that is also found in cheese products and which reacts negatively to some peoples skin types. A big fan of Optimum Nutrition, within weeks of trying Optimum Nutrition’s casein protein I had multiple huge, deep pimples.
Cheese and casein protein powder don’t just create regular small whitehead type surface pimples, they instead seem to create pimples from “beneath the skin”, deep down, painful and taking forever to go away.
Duo to the size and long-lasting, almost cystic nature of pimples caused by cheese and casein these to products should be used in moderation by lifters with already oily skin. At least try cutting it out for a few weeks and see what happens.
Treating acne requires a scientific mindset; hypothesize and test, repeat until data drives results.
Creatine: Supplementing with creatine also increases my amount of breakouts as a whole, however they are much more easily managed, shallow, whitehead types. For this reason I still supplement with creatine on bulking cycles and deal with the minor uptick in average type pimples.
You should already be consuming plenty of water when working out and supplementing with creatine but it’s worth reminding, as it can help minimize risk.
Smoking/Smoky Environments: After a night out, regardless of how much alcohol was consumed, my skin usually breaks out. This seems to be due to the fact that smoking indoors is still allowed in many parts of the world and just as smoke clings to walls and clothes, it seems to cling to the face and cause issues with skin balance and pores.
Avoid smoky areas, whether from cigarettes, cigars or bonfires and see what happens for yourself.
Foods & Supplements That Are Neutral or Reduce Acne
You’ll have a hard time bulking up and making gains if you avoid all dairy products completely, however I don’t believe this is necessary. While cheese and casein wreak havoc on my skin, regular whey protein and meats do not. Products I use to help build muscle and remain healthy while combatting acne include:
Whey Isolate Protein: To meet my daily protein requirements I am a huge advocate of protein powder supplementation. While some “purists” prescribe to the contrarian “supplements are a waste of money I get all my macros from whole foods”, for many of us that’s just not a real possibility, both financially and time-wise.
Lean whey-based protein powders like Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard or Ultimate Nutrition’s Whey are both good, been using them for the past 2 years without issue. I look for a protein that has as much actual protein as possible and as little of pretty much everything else. Hydroisolate protein is probably even better but I just can’t afford that sh*t.
I mix my whey proteins with water instead of milk for a few reasons.
- Post workout the body needs hydration to resupply nutrients
- Water keeps the body flushing out toxins regularly
- Water has no fat or added calories so is great when cutting
I also try to get as much as my protein as possible from lean meats like chicken and fish, as they both taste delicious and have zero impact on oil production or outbreaks.
Matcha Green Tea Powder: I buy this in bulk and add it to one of my protein shakes, usually the one taken in the morning with breakfast. Green tea is pretty much a miracle food: it boosts metabolism, supports the immune system and may even combat radical cellular mutations with it’s polyphenol catechins. Plus it tastes delicious with chocolate protein powders, give it a try.
Multi-Vitamin (twice daily): Unless you’re eating a gorilla sized portion of fresh organically farmed fruits and vegetables of all the colors of the rainbow everyday you are probably deficient in one of the hundreds of vitamins and minerals our bodies need, especially when being extremely taxed by the stresses of lifting heavy ass weight.
Vitamins E and C have been suggested to help maintain balanced skin. Minerals like Zinc can also help balance the skin (it is just a giant organ after all).
Generic Wal-Mart type vitamins like Men’s One-A-Day have all the essentials plus a little extra in them, however they are designed for “average” males. If you’re killing it at the gym 4-6 days a week your body could probably benefit from a more sports oriented vitamin like Optimum Nutritions “Opti-Men”.Opti-Men is affordable and absolutely PACKED with all kinds of insanely healthy sh*t. Some key acne-fighting components include:
- 667% Daily Vitamin E
- 5,000% Daily Thiamin
- 375% Daily Thiamin
- 100% Daily Zinc
- Phyto Men Blend (which is pretty every dope anti-oxidant under the sun, from green tea powder to blueberry powder to spinach and kale powder)
I eat 2 multivitamins a day since not all of it is absorbed each time, consuming it twice throughout the day (morning and lunch) will increase the amount of nutrients absorbed maintain a continuous supply of nutrition.
Fish Oil: Add oil to help control oil? Yeah it seems counter intuitive, and it hasn’t reduced overall sebum production however since supplementing with the dopest fish oil I can find deep cystic type acne has been GREATLY reduced and regular whitehead type acne is much more manageable.
pick your poison
Plus fish oil is pretty much one of the most healthy and commonly studied supplements all individuals should be taking.
Glucosamine: I originally started supplementing with a Glucosamine + MSM supplement a year ago to help deal with some knee joint/tendon issues causing pain when squatting. While research hasn’t shown glucosamine + MSM to create NEW cartilage it has been shown to help prevent further wear on existing cartilage. After a year of supplementing with glucosamine and MSM my knee pain greatly improved.
Coincidentally(?) after supplementing with glucosamine I noticed a slight reduction in sebum production and longer periods of being completely breakout free. I use Schiff because it’s cheap, it’s everywhere (Wal-Mart, Walgreens, etc), it’s powerful (1500mg) and has MSM and Hyaluronic Acid as well, which have been shown to increase the effectiveness of glucosamine, like creatine+beta-alanine.
Tons of Water: At work I am constantly drinking water. While working out I go through at least one huge bottle and with my post workout shakes I mix with water instead of milk. Drinking water and staying hydrated may be one of the most studied and plausible ways at managing sebum and acne.
Think about the fact that our bodies are 70%+ water. We’re huge walking water bags. If you’re low on water that will only stress your entire system, and stress undoubtably only adds to acne problems. Keep your body hydrated, lubricated and self-flushing with a continuous influx of fresh water.
*While I don’t attribute any specific food or supplement to be the sole cause or solution for my acne, it does seem that over the years of trying various different combinations of foods and supplements the above combination has provided the maximum possible results in terms of managing sebum and breakouts while maintaining a strict workout regimen.
Face and Body Washing & Topical Regimens
While the above focused on fighting acne from the inside out, this section focuses on combating pimples form the outside in, specifically what can be done to the skin to help mitigate the excess oil as much as possible whilst simultaneously reducing the chances for breakouts.
Cleaning: A Delicate Balance
On one hand you need to wash your face and body regularly to remove the dirt and impurities that collect with the accumulation of excess oil. On the other hand you don’t want to strip your skin of all of it’s natural first-line defenses and cause it to get stressed out and produce more oil.
I’ve found the single best way to strike the balance between clean and stripping the skin of all healthy oils completely is to control the balance by adjusting the washing agents used, frequency of washing and additional topical applications.
Things that Increase Oil Production and Exacerbate Acne
First, some products/chemicals I’ve found to hurt or make oil/acne worse
X Powder-based oil blotting papers: I’m not sure exactly why but my assumption is the powder, usually talcum powder, turns to goop with the oil on your face and ends up clogging pores. So in the short term the powder will reduce facial shine but in the long term the clogged pores will just produce more zits. A little shine or more pimples? I think the choice is clear.
X Alcohol-based Astringents: Toners are a foreign word to many men, and for the most part, it should stay this way. It would seem that 90% of the toners available locally are pretty much just bottles of rubbing alcohol with maybe a little salicylic acid so they can market themselves as anti-acne.
While salicylic acid is a researched and proven acne fighter, alcohol most certainly is not. While it definitely astringes the f*ck out of pores, it also completely strips the skin of all of it’s oil, which you don’t want, as well as irritating the skin itself.
There are a few toners that can help with complexion however ones that depend on alcohol as their main ingredient should be avoided.
X Overly aggressive anti-acne cleansers: In the effort to market themselves as the toughest acne fighters on the market many facial wash brands have gone over the top on the harness factor of their cleaners. Short term they do punch acne in the face, but long term they also punch your skin in the face and your skin doesn’t like that and will respond in kind by doubling down on it’s oil and pimple production.
Things that Help Manage Oil & Reduce Breakouts
Now for the good stuff, a list of products I’ve used long-term and have had a positive impact on the quality of my skin:
√ Non-powdered oil absorbing sheets: I’m not sure what the hell these are made out of but they suck up oil like no other without depositing any sh*t on my skin. They’re cheap, compact and super handy at blotting up pools of oil without stripping the skin of 100% of it’s protective shield.
Unfortunately man companies seem to market these for women. I’m not sure why, as men have just as, if not oiler skin. There are a few companies that market to men however, those being Clean and Clear Oil Absorbing Sheets and Gatsby Oil Blotting Sheets (Japanese).
The packaging is discreet and you get like a million sheets in each package, so it’s a very value-conscious solution.
√ A MILD Facewash: I’ve probably gone through a hundred different face wash companies over the years, from Clean & Clear to Oxyclean to L’Oreal Mens and for the most part they are all too brutal on my skin.
As explained in the “do not” section above, many facial cleanser companies go over the top in what seems to be a race to be the most “extreme” cleanser. Unfortunately “extreme” is not good for a face prone to breakouts and long-term these cleansers do more damage than good.
Two facial cleansers that help fight acne without being detrimental to your skins natural balance are both from Neutrogena. No I’m not a Neutrogena spokesperson, these are just the two products that keep my skin clean but without stripping them away like a sandblaster.
Best Facewash #1: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control Power-Cream Wash is one of the best mild face washes on the market. It focuses not on “combatting pimples” but instead on “reducing stress”. This is a better long-game strategy as less stress= less pimples. I’m pretty sure the active ingredients of green tea and cucumber can be attributed to this effect. This stuff is available everywhere, smells like it would go good on a turkey sandwich and is affordable.
Best Facewash #2: Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser is a worth alternative to the above. I buy whichever I run into first or run out of last. The Natural’s version is nice because it doesn’t have a lot of the cheap filler chemicals used in many other washes. It’s also mild as hell and has willowbark which soothes. The focus on this wash is to “purify”, not “nuke your pimples to kingdom-come”.
The commonality with these face washes is obvious; they’re about “purifying” and “stress control”, two long-term, “stability-focuses” objectives, they aren’t extreme in any way and don’t only focus on the short game of combatting the pimple currently on your face.
Ultimately face treatment strategy is like muscle building strategy: long term, safe, stabile an comprehensive in nature.
Two more bonus products that I use on a daily basis to help keep skin clean, bacteria free and balanced are:
√ Naruko Tea Tree Oil Out Night Gelly: This is easily found in Asia but harder to find in the west, although it is on Amazon. It’s not cheap but it’s quality. With healthy amounts of tea trea oil and mint amongst other oil-mediating ingredients this is awesome because you put it on before you sleep and it works while you sleep.
Just like the fact muscle only grows when you sleep, you have an 8-9 hour window to help your skin that you should be utilizing. This product gets bonus points for smelling like the absolute essence of freshness.
These types of products are popular in Asia where average humidity levels and air pollutant levels are much higher than much of greater America. Naruko Tea Tree Night Gelly is from Taiwan and is a leader in oil control products.
√ Neutrogena Oil Control Hydrator: Only mentioning this because this product is DOPE. It’s like a lotion you wear during the day that both hydrates and mattifies. Mattifying just means eliminating excess shine; think regular car vs matte car.
Lots of women’s products promise to mattify but they’re usually powder/talcum based and not the best for pores. Neutrogena oil-control hydrator does it without the powder and with the addition of vitamin E and cedar wood extract, meaning yeah, it also smells manly as f*ck.
Uuuuuuuuuunfortunatley it’s not sold in America. I have no idea why, I think Neutrogena could make a killing selling this in the U.S market, but it’s just not. Here’s a link to the product description, although you can’t buy it. If you can find it, BUY IT, you won’t regret it, it’s one of the best daily use products for mitigating oil I’ve found.
Regaining Confidence One Pimple at a Time: Spot Treatment
For spot treatment, to combat those pimples that do arise with the ferocity of which I attack the gym I use a spot treatment solution of green tea, sulfur and vitamins. There are several brands sold over the counter in Taiwan with these main ingredients that work awesome. Tea trea is a magic essence, it’s antibacterial and helps with healing. Vitamin E helps skin heal as well and sulfur helps to kill bacteria and dry out the pimple as well.
The best product in the states for spot treating zits, especially the tenacious ones that result from workout out and high protein diets is Retinol Plus. The ingredient profile is stacked, the branding is gender neutral, and the price is fair (one of these little bottles will last at least half a year because each pimple only requires 1 drop)
Sample Daily Skincare Regimen For Gym Lovers
So to summarize the face routine I’ve honed in over the years to minimize sebum excretion and pimple sprouting is:
- MILD face wash upon waking
- Moisturizer, preferably mattifying to reduce shine
- Oil absorbent sheet for late day oiliness
- MILD face wash before sleeping
- Night Jelly for repair/hydration
- Tea Tree + Sulfur spot treatment for any trouble makers
Defending Against & Minimizing Body Acne: The Big Leagues
Compared to the face, acne that forms on the back, conveniently referred to as “backne”, is much more difficult to deal with. Partly because well, it’s hard to reach the back and inspect it up close like the face, and partly because the back has a much larger, sweatier surface area. Additionally the skin on a man’s back is much thicker than his face so the potential for nasty deep acne is higher.
Just like the face, the goal is to deal with oil production and remove bacteria without going overboard. Exfoliating daily, using super harsh cleansers and washing too frequently will dry the skin out, irritate it and only exacerbate the problem in the long run.
Fighting back and chest acne involves first washing as soon as possible after working out. The longer your stinky sweat soaked shirt is on your sweat soaked body the more bacteria will form. The more bacteria the more pimples.
Use an anti-bacterial body wash to keep clean. Avoid strongly fragranced body washes as well as mainstream soap bars as they’re usually composed of all types of sh*t that will keep your girlfriends butt smooth but clog your manly back pores.
Tea Tree (seeing a pattern here?) Tingle Body Wash from Trader Joes is probably the best bang for your buck in terms of bacteria killing without being overly harsh and still being affordable. It smells awesome due to the pepperminty, eucalyptus and tea tree extracts.
Get Your Timing Right
Just like with the face, try avoiding cheese/casein products and drink tons of water. Controlling bacne is more about stabilizing the bodies equilibrium and timing than it is topical creams.
On top of washing immediately after working out make sure you’re using a clean shirt for every workout, and a clean shirt after your workout. If you workout in the afternoon or evening and put on a shirt you’ve already worn for half the day, you’re just rubbing dead skin cells, oil and dirt into freshly cleaned and open pores, which will only make the problem worse.
Keep Things Clean Around You
Additionally, change your sheets regularly and try wearing a t-shirt to bed when you sleep. If you have problems with body acne it’s because you’re body is an oil factory. When you roll around in your sleep oil and dead skin cells are transferred to your bed sheets. Sleeping in a clean t-shirt separates your clean skin from this accumulation of acne causing agents.
In the same note, make sure to regularly change your pillow case to combat facial acne for the same reason.. you rub oil into your pillowcase all night and washing your face and sleeping on a dirty pillow case is counter productive.
Tip: you don’t have to use a fresh pillow case every night.. try 2 nights on one side, then reverse it for 2 more nights, then take it off and turn it inside out and repeat. You should be able to get a full week of clean sleep out of one fresh pillow case.
Fighting Acne is a Ritual Not a Reaction
If you neglect your skin and only react once pimples appear you are not actually addressing the problem, only reacting to the outcome, and will thus forever have said problem.
Effectively managing acne, especially acne caused by increased testosterone levels and grueling gym sessions requires constant vigilance and a complete change to your daily routine.
Preventative care works much longer in the long run. This means using mild cleansers, only washing twice a day to avoid irritation/over-drying and thus increased oil production, and adjusting your diet accordingly.
Avoid the urge to pop zits until they’re ripe. You know exactly what that means, and it can be tough, but it will heal quicker and be better long term, and if you’re a bodybuilder you should be able to comprehend this importance of “longterm vision”.
Think of acne combat as a war, where you must focus on the big picture, of habit, diet and solutions and not just focus on the individual zits. If you just focus on one zit at a time you will win many small battles but lose the overall war for your skins health.
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