GYM: Allergen or Not An Allergen?

Allergen

Gyms, Yoga Studios, etc.

You can’t patch test a gym so it’s never going to make it to published lists of top contact allergens but most gyms, yoga studios and other fitness environments are a minefield of top contact allergens. Read on to learn what they plus how you can avoid them so that you can keep your body, mind, AND skin healthy!

Some common contact allergens in gyms and exercise studios:

Any of these can cause rashes, redness, itching, dryness and flare-ups. They can also potentially cause acne. While allergens don’t clog pores the way comedogens do, they can irritate the pore, causing inflammation and infection. Many of these allergens are also photo-allergens — on their own, they can react with light to cause dark skin blotches and spots. And post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can follow any reaction or acne.

  • Weights (dumbbells, bars, plates, etc.): There are a few points of contact that are potentially risky:
    • Smaller dumbbells often have a rubberized exterior (rubber is a top contact allergen). Elastic workout bands may have rubber or rubber-related ingredients. Where you find rubber, you tend to find other allergens like thiuram and carba mix.
    • Some smaller weights are brightly colored (dyes are top allergens) or black (PPD) or dark blue (disperse blue).
    • Heavier weights and weight machines tend to use steel bars which have nickel (the number one contact allergen). While some of these bars may be made of very high quality steel to withstand the loads they carry, one study showed that using them “may result in relatively high nickel doses on the skin…in the same range as the amount of nickel deposited on skin of metal workers and locksmiths during one hour, but higher than for example cashiers, carpenters and dressmakers.” Nickel is dissolved by sweat (a “microbial corrosion”), resulting in its absorption and penetration into the skin, which is what causes the allergic reaction, and which might account for the higher transference onto skin when working out.
  • Exercise Mats: yoga mats, pilates mats, fitness mats, and rubber mats in gyms are important to keep you safe when working out. But most are made of or contain rubber.
  • Some thicker mats also contain foam, where latex becomes an additional issue. Many, including those made of potentially safer plastics (Thermal Plastic Elastomer or PVC), are dyed.
  • Particularly since COVID, most fitness centers have become diligent about wiping down seats and equipment with disinfectant bleaches. While not allergens, many of these bleaches contain chlorine (or even mercury) and result in skin problems. These disinfecting items and hand sanitizers (also more frequently found throughout the gym) often also contain other allergens like fragrance.

Additional Risks

  • Protective equipment like helmets (basically anything with protective foam) also have contact allergens.
  • Allergens abound in your shoes, rubber slippers (which are good to wear in the shower but do have allergens so be guided by your patch test), and anything with stretch like socks, underwear, and workout clothes (especially if brightly or darkly colored).
  • Sweating is another factor that allows more contact of irritants and/or allergens to react with the skin…so if you are allergic to any of these substances, contact with them while you’re sweating could make the reaction worse.
  • Infection: Particularly if you have atopic dermatitis (eczema), contact dermatitis, a damaged barrier layer (such as from psoriasis or rosacea), or just very dry skin, opportunistic microbes are a risk. They love penetrating minor cracks and fissures in the skin’s barrier layer and can cause infections. Many microbes loooooove sweat, wetness, and humidity — the gym, its showers, your clothes, socks, and shoes are inviting environments for both allergic reactions and infections to thrive.
  • Shower amenities and towels (see below for tips).

TIPS

Don’t let these common allergens deter you from working out: daily exercise is too important!

  • Step one is getting a patch test so you know exactly what you, in particular, need to be avoiding. You might not be allergic to the materials in the gym themselves but ingredients in disinfectants or soaps used to clean them.
  • For mats, socks, apparel, use natural cotton (especially are organic, uncolored, and untreated) as much as possible. Cottonique sells great options.
  • If you have patch tested positive to rubber, nickel, and related substances, try using an organic, untreated, uncolored cloth barrier (like a towel, gloves, or cloth) between you and the equipment or surface. Applying a mineral barrier-protective product like Stay-On-Point! or Armada Baby or Post-Procedure on skin before the cloth or gloves may provide an additional barrier). Just remember to check with a qualified trainer to ensure your safety, especially when lifting weights.
  • Bring your own allergen-free supplies and gear!
  • Skin health outside of the gym:
    • If your feet tend to have fungal issues, apply Id Monolaurin Gel followed by Stay Fresh-ener before putting on socks and shoes.
    • Apply Armada or Stay-On-Point! before going to the gym (indoor lights can cause hyperpigmentations).
    • If you have hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating) or bromhidrosis (foul body odor), do the same on your sweatiest areas.
    • If you have bumps on the face, back, chest, arms, buttocks, thighs, etc., add Id Monolaurin Gel to your Id or SuperSkin Care regimen.
    • Wash your mat, towel, and clothing in a hypoallergenic laundry soap or hypoallergenic shampoo like Fawn & Launder or even one of our hair and body shampoos. And if you can, leave them to dry outdoors so the breeze and the sun get rid of airborne chemicals left over from gym disinfection (like chlorine or bleach, which are both common irritants and photoallergens).

Subscribe to VMVinSKIN.com and our YouTube channel for more hypoallergenic tips and helpful “skinformation”!

If you have a history of sensitive skin…

don’t guess! Random trial and error can cause more damage. Ask your dermatologist about a patch test.

To shop our selection of hypoallergenic products, visit vmvhypoallergenics.com. Need help? Ask us in the comments section below, or for more privacy (such as when asking us to customize recommendations for you based on your patch test results) contact us by email, or drop us a private message on Facebook.

For more:

Main References: 

Regularly published reports on the most common allergens by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group and European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (based on over 28,000 patch test results, combined), plus other studies. Remember, we are all individuals — just because an ingredient is not on the most common allergen lists does not mean you cannot be sensitive to it, or that it will not become an allergen. These references, being based on so many patch test results, are a good basis but it is always best to get a patch test yourself.

  1. Gumulka M, Matura M, Lidén C, Kettelarij JA, Julander A. Nickel exposure when working out in the gym. Acta Derm Venereol. 2015 Feb;95(2):247-9. doi: 10.2340/00015555-1917. PMID: 24954092.
  2. DeKoven JG, Silverberg JI, Warshaw EM, Atwater AR, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group Patch Test Results: 2017-2018. Dermatitis. 2021 Mar-Apr 01;32(2):111-123.
  3. DeKoven JG, Warshaw EM, Zug KA, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group Patch Test Results: 2015-2016. Dermatitis. 2018 Nov/Dec;29(6):297-309.
  4. DeKoven JG, Warshaw EM, Belsito DV, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group Patch Test Results 2013-2014. Dermatitis. 2017 Jan/Feb;28(1):33-46.
  5. Warshaw, E.M., Maibach, H.I., Taylor, J.S., et al. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012. Dermatitis. 2015; 26: 49-59.
  6. W Uter et al. The European Baseline Series in 10 European Countries, 2005/2006–Results of the European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (ESSCA). Contact Dermatitis 61 (1), 31-38.7 2009.
  7. Wetter, DA et al. Results of patch testing to personal care product allergens in a standard series and a supplemental cosmetic series: An analysis of 945 patients from the Mayo Clinic Contact Dermatitis Group, 2000-2007. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010 Nov;63(5):789-98.
  8. Warshaw EM, Buonomo M, DeKoven JG, et al. Importance of Supplemental Patch Testing Beyond a Screening Series for Patients With Dermatitis: The North American Contact Dermatitis Group Experience. JAMA Dermatol. 2021 Dec 1;157(12):1456-1465.
  9. Verallo-Rowell VM. The validated hypoallergenic cosmetics rating system: its 30-year evolution and effect on the prevalence of cosmetic reactions. Dermatitis 2011 Apr; 22(2):80-97.
  10. Ruby Pawankar et al. World Health Organization. White Book on Allergy 2011-2012 Executive Summary.
  11. Misery L et al. Sensitive skin in the American population: prevalence, clinical data, and role of the dermatologist. Int J Dermatol. 2011 Aug;50(8):961-7.
  12. Warshaw EM1, Maibach HI, Taylor JS, Sasseville D, DeKoven JG, Zirwas MJ, Fransway AF, Mathias CG, Zug KA, DeLeo VA, Fowler JF Jr, Marks JG, Pratt MD, Storrs FJ, Belsito DV. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012.Dermatitis. 2015 Jan-Feb;26(1):49-59.
  13. Warshaw, E et al. Allergic patch test reactions associated with cosmetics: Retrospective analysis of cross-sectional data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, 2001-2004. J AmAcadDermatol 2009;60:23-38.
  14. Foliaki S et al. Antibiotic use in infancy and symptoms of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and eczema in children 6 and 7 years old: International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Phase III. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009 Nov;124(5):982-9.
  15. Kei EF et al. Role of the gut microbiota in defining human health. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2010 Apr; 8(4): 435–454.
  16. Thavagnanam S et al. A meta-analysis of the association between Caesarean section and childhood asthma. Clin Exp Allergy. 2008;38(4):629–633.
  17. Marks JG, Belsito DV, DeLeo VA, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch-test results, 1998 to 2000. Am J Contact Dermat. 2003;14(2):59-62.
  18. Warshaw EM, Belsito DV, Taylor JS, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch test results: 2009 to 2010. Dermatitis. 2013;24(2):50-99.
  19. Verallo-Rowell V. M, Katalbas S.S. & Pangasinan J. P. Natural (Mineral, Vegetable, Coconut, Essential) Oils and Contact Dermatitis. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep 16,51 (2016) . https://doi.org/10.1007/s11882-016-0630-9.
  20. Park G, Oh DS, Lee MG, Lee CE, Kim YU. 6-Shogaol, an active compound of ginger, alleviates allergic dermatitis-like skin lesions via cytokine inhibition by activating the Nrf2 pathway. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2016 Nov 1;310:51-59. doi: 10.1016/j.taap.2016.08.019. Epub 2016 Aug 22. PMID: 27562088.
  21. de Groot AC. Monographs in Contact Allergy, Volume II – Fragrances and Essential Oils. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group; 2019.
  22. De Groot AC. Monographs in Contact Allergy Volume I. Non-Fragrance Allergens in Cosmetics (Part I and Part 2). Boca Raton, Fl, USA: CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group, 2018.
  23. Zhu TH, Suresh R, Warshaw E, et al. The Medical Necessity of Comprehensive Patch Testing. Dermatitis. 2018 May/Jun;29(3):107-111.

Want more great information on contact dermatitis? Check out the American Contact Dermatitis SocietyDermnet New Zealand, the Contact Dermatitis Institute, and your country’s contact dermatitis association.


DrVR LVB 8rDF Bertotto8106e 5May2014 20191023

Laura is our “dew”-good CEO at VMV Hypoallergenics and eldest daughter of VMV’s founding dermatologist-dermatopathologist. She has two children, Madison and Gavin, and works at VMV with her sister CC and husband Juan Pablo (Madison and Gavin frequently volunteer their “usage testing” services). In addition to saving the world’s skin, Laura is passionate about health, inclusion, cultural theory, human rights, happiness, and spreading (like a VMV cream!) goodness!

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