How to Prevent and Treat Chafing

the lower half of two women running or training for a race

Bonnin Studio / Stocksy

A chafed area is basically a painful, bleeding scratch mark where your sweaty, salty skin has rubbed against your clothing or even against itself. It's important to know how to prevent chafing (and treat it if it does happen) so you can stay comfortable when you exercise and avoid infection.

How and Where Chafing Happens

Chafing is damage to the skin caused by repetitive rubbing. 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.

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. The chafed area will be red, raw, and tender.

Hot weather is a high-risk time for chafing due to sweating, but you can also chafe in cold or dry weather, too. 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 the 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.

Prevent Chafing in Susceptible Areas

Depending on the part of the body where chafing occurs, there are several things you can do to prevent rubbing and keep your skin healthy.

Wear Close-Fitting 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.

Use 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, Body Glide 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. Other traditional ointments include Bag Balm and Udder Cream, developed for dairy cows, which are available at the local feed shop or pet store.

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). Look for unscented powders if you are sensitive to the perfumes often added to these products.

Prevent Thigh Chafing

Thigh chafing can make it painful to walk, run, bike, and more. If it becomes bad enough, it may even cause you to stop exercising until they heal. How do you prevent thigh chafing?

  • 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.
  • Keep the area dry. You can use non-talcum absorbent body powder or a sports powder to ensure extra protection.
  • Use a lubricant on the spots that are prone to chafing before you put on the tights or compression shorts if you still have chafing problems.
  • Wear shorts under looser shorts, pants, or a sports skirt if you prefer. But be sure your combination fits well without fabric that ends up producing unwanted bunching and rubbing.

Prevent Groin Chafing

Men are especially prone to groin chafing, but it can affect women as well. Again, chafing in this area can make exercise uncomfortable. These tips can help.

  • 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.
  • Cyclists should wear bike shorts that have a built-in chamois, which wicks moisture away from the skin and apply a lubricant to the groin area as well.
  • Keep pubic hair natural or well-depilated. Stubble can contribute to chafing.
  • Lubricate the upper leg area if you wear briefs or bikini underwear with elastic at the leg openings.
  • Wear snug but not overly-tight workout shorts. Avoid shorts that will bunch up around the groin. Look for seamless shorts.

Note that there is a concern that talcum powder may increase the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, so females should avoid using this type of powder in the genital area.

Prevent Breast and Nipple Chafing

Breast and nipple chafing can occur in males and females. Use these steps to prevent painful chafing in the chest area.

  • If you wear a sports bra, choose one that has a soft fabric covering over the elastic and wide straps.
  • Cover your nipples to keep them from rubbing against your shirt. You can do this with an adhesive bandage or specialized products such as NipGuards.
  • Keep your under-breast area dry by using cornstarch or absorbent body powder.
  • Lubricate your nipples with petroleum jelly or Body Glide. (If you wear a sports bra, you may also want to lubricate the areas where your bra straps rub against the skin.)

Prevent Armpit Chafing

The armpits are a prime area for chafing since this is one place where it is common to sweat. How do you keep your underarms from getting red and raw?

  • 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 SportShield is especially good for this area, and it won't stain your shirts.
  • Try an antiperspirant that dries into a powder. This will not only keep you dry, but it also prevents the skin tackiness you can get with a deodorant stick.
  • Wear shirts that fit well in the armpits, without bunching. Look for seamless sleeves or those with flat seams.

Keep Skin Healthy to Prevent Chafing

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.

It's also beneficial to keep skin moisturized and clean when you aren't exercising. This can help reduce the risk of aggravating dry or already-irritated skin.

Some anti-chafing creams suggest that you wash them off once your workout is done, giving your skin more room to breathe and removing any bacteria. Soap and water will do the trick.

Treat Chafing

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. Follow these steps to treat the condition.

  • 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 switch to garments or gear that won't rub on the area.

When to See a Doctor

You should consult your healthcare 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:

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

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

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.