How To Treat and Prevent Folliculitis, Saddle Sores, and Chafing When Cycling

Your (super sensitive) skin will thank you.

At-home cycling bikes, like the Peloton, are popular and convenient when you don't feel like going to the gym. However, in addition to finding your favorite instructor and knowing how to clip in properly, it's essential to understand how to protect your skin from issues that can occur while spinning. Here's what to know about preventing and treating saddle sores, chafing, and folliculitis skin issues from cycling.

Melissa Mauskar, MD, assistant professor in the department of dermatology and obstetrics and gynecology at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said that people commonly misidentify that part of their bodies. Those cycling skin issues can occur in your vulvar region—not your vagina. "Everything on the outside of your body is the vulva," noted Dr. Mauskar. 

What Skin Conditions Stem From Cycling?

The vulva, buttocks, and inner thighs come into close contact with bike saddles. Therefore, spinning likely impacts those body parts due to friction and moisture, explained Dr. Mauskar, making that skin "a lot more susceptible to irritation and sensitivity."

Chafing

One of the most common skin conditions from cycling is chafing. Chafing occurs when your skin rubs against other skin, clothing, or other materials. That irritation usually presents as red, itchy, or painful-to-the-touch skin.

Folliculitis

Another problem cyclists can face is folliculitis—a condition that looks like a sudden acne breakout but is a skin infection that starts in the hair follicles. 

Folliculitis occurs "when hair follicles become inflamed from a mixture of occlusion [blockage], pressure, friction, and bacteria," said Jennifer Vickers, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Austin, Texas. 

It's also more likely to occur when your skin is damp and hot—like what happens during a cycling class. Your hair follicles can be damaged by:

  • Shaving
  • Touching or rubbing the skin
  • Wearing tight clothing
  • Skin rubbing on skin

Saddle Sores

Ultimately, if left untreated, folliculitis can develop into what's commonly known as saddle sores, skin issues on the buttocks, genitals, and inner thighs. Saddle sores start as chafing or folliculitis and develop into a severe scrape or infection.

According to Dr. Vickers, if saddle sores appear, "it is imperative to avoid trying to 'pop' or extract the sores, as this will only make the situation worse by creating more inflammation and introducing further possible sources of bacteria."

Treating and Preventing Issues

To help treat or prevent any irritation caused by friction, some evidence suggests applying a barrier cream before you ride to reduce the impact of friction.

Hambleton mentioned that her favorite, and the one most mentioned by experts we spoke to, is a drugstore staple: Aquaphor. You can also use petroleum jelly to help protect the chafed area as it heals.

Zinc Oxide

Dr. Mauskar also recommended finding a product with zinc oxide as an active ingredient (like medicated baby powder or creams) for its anti-inflammatory properties. 

Still, Dr. Mauskar cautioned that trying to scrub those off could cause more irritation.

Benzoyl Peroxide Rinse

If you're suffering from folliculitis or saddle sores, Dr. Mauskar recommended using an over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide rinse several times a week. Warm compresses and unmedicated ointments can also help. 

But seeking professional treatment for those conditions is essential to prevent further issues.

Wear Breathable Clothing

In addition to topical treatments, all experts agreed that clothing plays a vital role in preventing those skin conditions. 

For starters, choose breathable, moisture-wicking clothing that fits appropriately. Investing in padded shorts or a padded bike seat can also help reduce the impact of friction.

And as important as wearing the proper clothing, it's equally as vital to remove your workout clothes as soon as possible after a ride. Hambleton noted that wet clothing is a "breeding ground for yeast and bacteria," and staying in them after a workout only increases your chances of having issues in that area.

Take a Break From Cycling

Prevention can also look like skipping a ride once in a while: Jodi Shays, the owner of Queen Bee Salon & Spa in Culver City, Calif., said she could usually tell when her bikini wax clients are frequent riders due to skin irritation and increased sensitivity.

"If you just got a chemical peel on your face, you wouldn't go out in the sun right after," noted Shays. "This is the same thing." 

Some research has found that our skin may become compromised by removing the natural barrier (the hair) meant to protect the skin in that region.

"It's a recipe for inflammation and irritation," said Shays.

Check Your Bike Measurements

Finally, ensuring your handlebar and seat height are set up correctly can prevent skin irritation and inflammation. Hambleton stressed the importance of ensuring nothing is too high or low. That's so you can distribute your weight evenly and put less pressure on the area. 

She also recommended taking rides where you're only sometimes seated. Additionally, Shays cautioned clients against "pounding" their body back on the seat when coming down from the standing position.

When To See a Doctor

Even with preventative measures, you may still have skin irritation or inflammation from spinning. If this occurs, the first step is to stop riding for a few days. For cycling enthusiasts, that may be a hard pill to swallow, but it's necessary to let the skin rest. 

Hambleton stated, "The first thing I always tell my patients is to stop. Don't just say you're going to 'push through' and get on the bike the next day. Listen to your skin."

And, though you may be hesitant to contact a healthcare provider, every expert emphasized these conditions are more common than you think. As Dr. Mauskar explained, many of her patients end up having more problems by the time they finally come in because they try to treat these areas with various products that only exacerbate their issues.

A Quick Review

Cycling is great, but look out for chafing, folliculitis, and saddle sores. If you experience any problems with your skin, you may need to take a break from cycling, switch up the clothing you wear, or use petroleum jelly or baby powder on the area. 

And if you spend all that money on your spin bike, do yourself a favor and be sure to protect your skin from all that spin. Your body will thank you.

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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. National Library of Medicine. Chafing.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology. Acne-like breakouts could be folliculitis.

  3. Bury K, Leavy JE, O'Connor A, Jancey J. Prevalence, Prevention and Treatment of Saddle Sores among Female Competitive Cyclists: A Scoping Review ProtocolMethods Protoc. 2020;3(1):4. Published 2020 Jan 6. doi:10.3390/mps3010004

  4. Napier D, Heron N. Getting to the Bottom of Saddle Sores: A Scoping Review of the Definition, Prevalence, Management and Prevention of Saddle Sores in CyclingInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(13):8073. doi:10.3390/ijerph19138073

  5. Pany A, Klang V, Brunner M, Ruthofer J, Schwarz E, Valenta C. Effect of Physical and Chemical Hair Removal Methods on Skin Barrier Function in vitro: Consequences for a Hydrophilic Model PermeantSkin Pharmacol Physiol. 2019;32(1):8-21. doi:10.1159/000493168

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