The first thing you probably want to do after a brutal, sweaty workout is lie on the floor or plop down on the couch for a much-needed breather.
You probably know the resulting smell: "When sweat combines with the bacteria on skin, it can create a foul smell, also known as body odor," says Miami-based dermatologist Annie Gonzalez, MD. "Sweaty clothing absorbs that stench and makes the person's natural body odor much worse than before."
But it turns out that lying there in your sweat-soaked threads could be harmful to more than your nose. Read on to learn the not-so-pleasant health effects of sitting around in sweaty workout clothes.
You Become More Prone to Skin Issues
Ever notice blemishes on your back or chest the day after a workout? Sitting around in sweaty workout clothes may be to blame, says Dr. Gonzalez. When you sweat, your pores open up, making it easier for dirt and germs to get below the skin's surface.
"The dampness of sweaty clothing can easily retain bacteria," Dr. Gonzalez says. "By not switching clothing or showering, this bacteria can block pores and cause an influx of acne." Wearing tight, sweaty workout pants for too long can also cause folliculitis or inflamed hair follicles (think: butt acne), Dr. Gonzalez says.
Plus, different forms of fungi thrive in damp environments (yep, that includes your sweaty sports bra or shorts). Yeast is a fungus that's normally found on your skin but can cause infection in excess, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. That's why wearing sweaty clothes for too long can cause red, itchy or burning yeast infections in the folds of skin anywhere on your body.
Hanging around in damp gear can also be problematic for any open cuts or wounds you may have, Dr. Gonzalez says. The sweat makes it easier for bacteria to infect your skin.
People living with conditions like psoriasis should also avoid delaying their post-workout shower. Staying in sweaty workout clothing can cause psoriasis to feel extra dry and itchy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
You Up Your Risk of Genital Infections
Just like your skin becomes prone to yeast infection, your private areas do, too. Sitting around in wet clothes can disrupt the naturally occurring yeast in the vagina and around the penis, causing burning, itchiness or discharge, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Bacterial vaginosis is another risk to consider, according to Washington D.C.-based ob-gyn Jodie Horton, MD. Similar to yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis is an inflammation caused by an overgrowth of the natural bacteria in the vagina, according to the Mayo Clinic. This imbalance can cause itching, burning and abnormal discharge.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Sit Around in Sweaty Workout Clothes?
How long can you actually go before you absolutely need to shower after a workout? That may depend on the intensity of your training, Dr. Gonzalez says. After an easy session, your shower can probably wait until you get back home (about an hour). But after a grueling workout, rinse off as soon as you've cooled down.
"If the workout was light, like yoga or stretching, and the person didn't sweat a ton, then they likely won't be harmed by keeping their workout clothes on for a little longer," she says. "But if the workout was intense, like high-intensity interval training, changing out of wet clothes should be done fairly soon after."
Anyone who regularly experiences body acne should be extremely diligent about removing sweaty clothes and showering as soon as possible, Dr. Gonzalez says. If you have no way of doing so, try to wear lightweight, absorbent workout clothing (like microfiber or cotton) that will wick sweat off your body.
Also, Gonzalez recommends keeping a pack of cleansing wipes in your bag to freshen up after a workout (she likes Honest Baby Wipes, $15.99, Amazon). Wiping down after a workout can help remove excess bacteria.
Put on fresh clothing immediately after your shower — you don't want to re-expose your body to germs by putting sweaty gear back on. If you're not at home, place dirty clothing in a plastic bag or in your laundry machine. Keeping dirty gym apparel in the hamper probably won't harm the clothing but may leave a not-so-fragrant aroma.
If your acne becomes out of control or any cuts and scrapes look red, puffy or painful to the touch, it's best to make an appointment with a dermatologist or doctor, Dr. Gonzalez says. Your derm can help you come up with a plan to meet your skin's needs.
Similarly, if you start to notice symptoms of a yeast infection (burning, itchiness or discharge), consult your doctor as soon as possible. They can provide you with the right medications to get you back to normal in no time.