Chafing Prevention When Walking or Running

How to Prevent Painful Skin Chafing From Your Workouts

Thigh Chafing
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Chafing is damage to the skin caused by repetitive rubbing. A chafed area is basically a painful, bleeding scratch mark where your sweaty, salty skin has rubbed against your clothing or even against itself. The chafed area will be red, raw, and tender.

When you sweat, the moist skin is more prone to damage. Salt crystals form when sweat evaporates, adding grit that can cause more friction and chafing. Hot weather is a high-risk time for chafing due to sweating, but you can also chafe in cold or dry weather.

Areas Prone to Chafing

If you know where chafing might happen, you can take measures to lubricate those areas before walking, running, cycling, or doing other exercises. Chafing is most often seen in the crevices of the body, with the crotch, armpits, under-breast area, and inner thighs being prime chafing areas. It's also common to see chafed nipples, especially for runners.

Straps are another source of pressure that can lead to chafing. You are likely to experience chafing where your bra straps or backpack straps cross your shoulders or back or rub against your upper arms. Heart rate monitor straps can lead to chafing across your chest and back as well.

If you have any rolls of fat or sagging skin you may experience chafing in the folds where it is moist and skin rubs on skin. You can get extra friction in those areas when you exercise due to repetitive motion, leading to chafing. However, you can be toned and trim and still need to take measures to prevent chafing.

4 Tactics to Prevent Chafing

Prevention of chafing falls into four categories: staying hydrated, staying dry, using a lubricant, and wearing appropriate clothing.

  1. Hydration: Drink lots of water before, during, and after your walk, run, ride, or other workouts. This will allow you to perspire freely so the perspiration doesn't dry into salt crystals that can enhance the chafing.
  2. Staying dry: Use an absorbent body powder, cornstarch, or potato starch to stay dry in any areas where you have crevices (under the breast, crotch, armpits, fat rolls). There are some brands formulated for sports, such as Squeaky Cheeks. Note that there is a concern that talcum powder may increase the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, so you should avoid using it in the genital area. Look for unscented powders if you are sensitive the perfumes often added to these products. If your clothing gets wet during a workout, switch to dry gear.
  3. Lubrication: Walkers, runners, and cyclists use a variety of anti-chafing lubricants to keep the skin areas sliding past each other instead of rubbing each other raw. Plain old petroleum jelly is the standby choice. You can apply it liberally before your workout. Sports stores have lubricants that are formulated to help prevent chafing during exercise. For example, BodyGlide goes on like a deodorant stick but improves on petroleum jelly in that it is petroleum-free and non-staining. SportShield roll-on silicone lubricant likewise has no odor, no petroleum ingredients, and doesn't leave a residue in clothing. There are also many hand creams that advertise their usefulness in chafing prevention. Open up your medicine cabinet and search for something that will keep the area lubricated. Other traditional ointments include Bag Balm and Udder Cream, developed for dairy cows, which are available at the local feed shop or pet store.
  1. Clothing: Loose clothes may feel good on the trail and during workouts, but to prevent chafing you need a snug fit. Bike shorts or compression shorts are designed to give a skin-tight fit that will prevent chafing for the lower body or thigh area. For the upper body, look for skin-tight polypropylene or lycra/spandex tops, or compression garments if you get chafing under sagging skin or fat rolls. Your clothes should be made of sweat-wicking fabric. You also need to choose clothing that is seamless or has flat seams in the areas that are prone to chafing.

Thigh Chafing

If you have experienced chafed thighs, use the prevention tactics in these ways:

  • Start by keeping the area dry. You can use non-talcum absorbent body powder or a sports powder to ensure extra protection.
  • Choose spandex tights or light compression shorts that will protect your skin. Shorts should be long enough to cover any areas that have chafed in the past. Be sure they have flat seams or are seamless. Running skirts often have these shorts built-in. They should be made of sweat-wicking fabric (not cotton) if you are going to be exercising and sweating.
  • If you'd rather camouflage your silhouette, wear the shorts under looser shorts, pants, or a sports skirt. But be sure your combination fits well without fabric that ends up producing unwanted bunching and rubbing.
  • If you still have chafing problems, use a lubricant on the spots that are prone to chafing before you put on the tights or compression shorts.

Groin Chafing

Men are especially prone to groin chafing, but it can affect women as well. Take these steps:

  • Apply lubricants generously to the groin area before you run, walk, or bike. You may need to reapply them during long workouts. Avoid the vagina or urethral opening as you may feel stinging or irritation from some lubricants in these areas.
  • If you wear briefs or bikini underwear with elastic at the leg openings, be sure to lubricate those areas.
  • Wear snug but not overly-tight workout shorts. Avoid shorts that will bunch up around the groin. Look for seamless shorts.
  • Cyclists should wear bike shorts that have a built-in chamois, which wicks moisture away from the skin, and apply a lubricant to groin area as well.
  • Pubic hair stubble can contribute to chafing, so either go natural or keep the area well-depilated.

Nipples and Under Breast Chafing

Use these steps to prevent painful chafing:

  • Cover your nipples to keep them from rubbing against your shirt. Wear a sports bra or cover your nipples with an adhesive bandage or specialized products such as Nip Guards.
  • Lubricate your nipples with petroleum jelly or BodyGlide.
  • Keep your under-breast area dry by using cornstarch or an absorbent body powder.
  • Lubricate the areas where your bra straps rub against the skin.
  • Choose sports bras that have a soft fabric covering over the elastic and that have wide straps.

Armpit Chafing

The armpits are a prime area for chafing due to your sweat glands.

  • Try an antiperspirant that dries into a powder. This will not only keep you dry, it prevents the skin tackiness you can get with deodorant stick.
  • Avoid armpit hair stubble, which can lead to chafing. Either let your armpit hair grow or ensure it is freshly shaved (without nicks).
  • Lubricate your armpits well before workouts. A silicone-based lubricant such as 2Toms Sport Shield is especially good for this area, and it won't stain your shirts.
  • Wear shirts that fit well in the armpits, without bunching. Look for seamless sleeves or those with flat seams.

Treatment and Recovery

If you feel chafing starting during your workout, stop what you are doing. Clean the area with soap and water (if available) pat dry, and bandage the area. If you must keep going, add a protective lubricant such as petroleum jelly to help prevent additional damage. Try adjusting your garments or straps so they don't rub on the chafed area. Change into clean and dry clothing if you have it available.

If your activity still produces rubbing in the area, you may want to stop or switch to an exercise that doesn't. For example, if running is causing chafing, try cycling, walking, or strength training exercises.

Once you are chafed, you should treat the area like an open wound:

  • Wash and clean the area with lukewarm water (not hot) and mild soap. This is likely to sting—in fact, you may only realize you have chafed when you take a shower and feel the sting. Don't use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide on the wound.
  • Gently pat the area dry and do not rub it.
  • Cover the chafed area with a gauze pad that allows the area to breathe while it heals.
  • You can also apply a light layer of petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline), which will help protect the area and keep it moist while it heals. Don't use an antibiotic ointment on an area that shows no sign of infection.

A chafe mark should scab over in a couple of days and the scabs should naturally fall away within a week, similar to how a scratch mark heals. The skin will be tender and you should protect it from further rubbing for a couple of weeks. Especially protect it from the sun if it is an area that will be exposed.

You may need to take time off from the activity that caused the chafing or to switch to garments or gear that won't rub on the area.

When to See a Doctor

You should consult your health care provider if there are any signs of a skin infection developing or if you have diabetes and the skin is not healing. The signs of a skin infection include:

  • Redness spreading away from the initial chafing mark
  • Swelling
  • Hot skin
  • Blood or pus exuding from the chafing mark
  • Open wound that hasn't scabbed over in a couple of days

Your doctor may advise using an antibiotic ointment. For an infection that is spreading, you may be prescribed an oral antibiotic.

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