“Summer is a big setup for chafing,” says Harry Dao, dermatologist and chair of the dermatology department at Loma Linda University. He compares skin affected by chafing, also known as intertrigo or irritant contact dermatitis, to a dry riverbed. “When water evaporates out of that area, the mud or dirt will crack.” When your skin cracks after too much continuous exposure to sweat, water, and/or friction, it becomes red, itchy, and painful, and in extreme cases, bloody. As Min Deng, a dermatologist at MedStar Health in Chevy Chase explains, the top layer of skin can “exfoliate” to the point where it’s completely rubbed off.
Applying pre-activity petroleum jelly to susceptible areas is one of the best forms of prevention. But if you’re wondering how to deal with angry skin that’s already chafed, here’s what you need to know.
To prevent infection, Dao recommends gently washing the chafed area with lukewarm water and a “very mild” cleanser such as Albolene, a facial wash designed for eye makeup removal. “I tell my patients if it’s safe for your eyelids, it’s probably safe anywhere else,” says Deng. He emphasizes the importance of avoiding scrubbing and making sure the wash is completely rinsed off to prevent further irritation and a potential rash.
Once the area is clean, pat it dry (never rub) and apply an emollient right away to lock in moisture, soothe and promote healing. According to Dao, “plain old greasy petroleum jelly” is perfect. Deng says a zinc oxide-based cream like Desitin (the diaper cream) is an effective alternative: “It’s so thick and it creates a really good barrier.”
If you have issues with sweat, Dao suggests adding a layer of powder on top of the emollient. “Powders soak up excess sweat that appears over the course of the day.” Nonprescription antifungal products such as Ziazorb and Dr. Scholl’s work well, he says. “Fungus likes to grow when it’s sweaty, hot and moist. And so those powders are designed to pick up excess moisture.” If possible, Dao suggests changing out of sweat-soaked clothes into dry ones during your lunch break.
If you use adhesive bandages to avoid getting petroleum jelly on your clothes, do so sparingly, says Shilpi Kheterpal, Cleveland Clinic dermatologist. She suggests wearing a bandage only as long as necessary, and make it as tight as possible to avoid trapping additional moisture that could create “an even worse environment.” Another reason to avoid adhesive bandages is that the adhesive can cause an allergic reaction, Dao says.
Stay away from topical antibiotics such as Neosporin, the experts say. As Kheterpal puts it, simply hearing the word “makes every dermatologist cringe.” She adds that 8 to 10 percent of the population is allergic, including people who have used it previously without incident. Kheterpal also suggests avoiding Aquaphor, which contains lanolin, another potential allergen. If you have an infection, she says, your doctor will prescribe topical or oral antibiotics as needed.
Other products to avoid include gels, lotions and creams. According to Dao, these products have a relatively high alcohol content, which makes them sting.
For pain, most people respond well to emollients and protecting the chafed area from touching or rubbing against clothing. For more TLC, Kheterpal suggests icing the area (with some gauze between the ice and your skin) or taking ibuprofen.
What to wear and how to exercise
Choose looser clothing while your skin is healing, says Kheterpal. Tight clothing can cause the friction and rubbing that caused the chafing in the first place.
Also, be mindful of your materials. While cotton allows your skin to breathe, it doesn’t offer the sun protection that UPF clothing does.. Kheterpal suggests wearing cotton when you’re inside and UV-blocking blends when you go outside.
If your chafed skin is exposed to the sun, it’s best to apply sunblock before an emollient. Dao suggests zinc or titanium-based products, as they’re less likely to aggravate chafed, tender skin.
Whatever exercise you do, apply a layer of petroleum jelly before your workout. Then, Dao encourages people to, “Start slow and work your way up.” If a 30-minute moderate session is tolerable, try a longer, more intense session next time and increase gradually from there based on how you feel.
What about swimming?
Is it safe to swim while you’re chafed? That depends. If you got chafed while swimming, you’d definitely want to wear a swimsuit or wetsuit that doesn’t put pressure on the areas that are already raw. Otherwise, Dao asks his patients how long they’d wait before jumping in a lake or pool with a scraped knee. “95 percent of my patients tell me, ‘I’d jump in the pool right away.’ And so that’s probably the answer for most folks.”
According to Kheterpal, water (particularly chlorinated pools) can be irritating, But, she says, it’s fine to go in the water as long as you apply a zinc-based waterproof barrier cream before you go in, and rinse and pat the affected areas dry and reapply an emollient as soon as you get out.
Deng says pools are generally safer than lakes and oceans, where you’re more likely to come into contact with bacteria and parasites. “There’s potential for infection, so I'm always very cautious about recommending going into an open body of water.”
Signs you need medical treatment
Most cases resolve within a week or two with the conservative treatment described above, says Dao. If your chafing isn’t responding or it’s getting worse, see a doctor. Signs of infection include skin that’s growing warmer, redder, more swollen and painful, or oozing and crusting.
Dao acknowledges it can be “embarrassing and scary” to ask your dermatologist or primary care physician to examine your skin, particularly the areas you’d prefer to keep private. But other diagnoses, including inverse psoriasis, an erythrasma infection, and extramammary paget disease, a rare form of cancer, can be mistaken for chafing. If untreated, the problem will linger at best, and threaten your life at worst.
But most of the time, some petroleum jelly and a break from the conditions that caused your chafing are all you need. As Dao suggests, “Keep things pretty simple.”
Pam Moore is a Boulder-based freelance writer, speaker, marathoner, Ironman triathlete, and certified personal trainer. She’s also the host of the Real Fit podcast, featuring real conversations with women athletes about body image, confidence, and more. Visit her at pam-moore.com.