Why Chafing Happens and How to Prevent It

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A person pointing to a rash in their inner leg

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You may have experienced the pain of chafed skin between your thighs after running a marathon, engaging in repetitive breastfeeding, or even after wearing very tight clothing. Chafing occurs when your skin rubs together and the friction leads to redness and irritation. 

Chafing is not a serious problem in and of itself. But if the chafing becomes severe enough that the skin opens or a blister forms, it could make skin susceptible to bacteria and viruses, and lead to an infection. 

Keep reading to find out why chafing happens, where it happens, and how you can treat it. 

Why Does Chafing Happen? 

Chafing happens when your skin becomes irritated by repetitive rubbing. In severe cases, you may wear away the top layer of your skin and blisters can form. 

When chafing starts to happen, your immune system kicks in to protect the area, and the small blood vessels in your skin open wider to allow more blood flow to the irritated site and your immune cells rush to begin the healing process. This increase in blood flow causes your skin to become red and warm.

These immune cells and hormones can irritate the nerves in the skin and cause swelling and moisture in the area. 

Where Does Chafing Happen?

Chafing can occur anywhere your skin rubs together or something rubs repeatedly against your skin. For example, it can happen by:

  • Wearing tight clothes
  • Riding a horse and having your leg repeatedly rub the same place of the saddle
  • Wearing a new pair of shoes that rub on your ankle
  • Excess weight in the thighs, arms, or abdomen can increase the risk of skin rubbing against itself and causing irritation
  • Skin folds that rub against each other can also cause chafing.
  • Wearing a diaper when the area under the diaper becomes moist, and the diaper rubs along the skin. Often, the chafing will be even more severe along the edges of the diaper, where it rubs against the legs, abdomen, and back.

How to Prevent Chafing

Chafing can be uncomfortable and may lead to more severe problems, such as abrasions or blisters. However, here are several simple tips to reduce your chances of developing chafing before it even starts:

  • Keep your skin and clothes clean and dry. Dirt and moisture can irritate the skin and lead to chafing.
  • Wear soft, loose clothing in areas that tend to rub. Avoid tight clothing.
  • Wear proper clothing for your activities. For example, wear biking shorts when biking.
  • Avoid activities that cause chafing and stop any activity that begins to cause chafing.
  • Apply petroleum jelly, powder, or barrier cream to sites that may rub together, such as your thighs.
  • Wear nylon or moisture-wicking socks. Two pairs of socks may help in some situations.
  • Wear shoes that fit properly. They should not be too tight or loose.
  • Place soft bandages over areas prone to chafing, such as your thighs or feet. 

How to Treat Chafing

Once chafing has occurred, there are some things you can do to help the area heal. Treating chafing is very similar to preventing it, so once the damage heals, continue to do these things to avoid chafing in the future:

  • Keep it clean: Clean the area with soap and water. Pat it dry. Dirt and grime can irritate the area more and cause an infection if bacteria find their way into a section of broken skin.
  • Protect it: Protect the area by putting a barrier over it. Cover the area with a lotion, barrier cream, or powder to prevent further chafing. Cover the area with a clean, dry cloth or bandage. Some sites may need extra padding, such as a foot inside a new shoe.
  • Avoid recurrences: Wear looser clothing and avoid the activity that caused the chafing in the first place. If the chafing occurs because of tight clothing, wear looser clothing in the area. If it happens during a particular activity, such as riding a horse, avoid the activity until the area heals and you can find a way to prevent more chafing.
  • Keep an eye on it: Talk to a medical professional if the chafed area becomes very red, painful, warm to the touch, or starts to swell. These are signs of infection, and you may need antibiotics or other treatments to prevent the condition from worsening or spreading to other parts of your body.

A Quick Review

Chafing occurs when your skin rubs together and the friction leads to redness, irritation, and inflammation. To prevent and treat chafing, keep the area clean and dry, cover the site as needed for comfort, wear loose clothing, and avoid any activity that causes chafing.

Generally, chafing is not a serious issue and only causes mild irritation and discomfort. However, keep a close eye on the area to ensure it does not become infected, which could be dangerous.

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4 Sources
Health.com 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.
  1. Fluhr JW, Darlenski R, Angelova-Fischer I, Tsankov N, Basketter D. Skin irritation and sensitization: Mechanisms and new approaches for risk assessmentSkin Pharmacol Physiol. 2008;21(3):124-135. doi:10.1159/000131077

  2. Skinsight. Diaper rash (Irritant diaper dermatitis) condition, treatments and pictures for infants.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to prevent and treat blisters.

  4. MedlinePlus. Chafing.

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