Saddle Sores and Chafing Are a Pain for Anyone Who Cycles—Here’s How to Treat and Prevent These Skin Issues
With many gyms and spin studios closed due to COVID-19, at-home cycling bikes like the oh-so-popular Peloton are more sought-after than ever. But in addition to finding your favorite instructor and knowing how to properly clip in so you don't go flying off the bike à la Amy Schumer's character in I Feel Pretty, it's equally as important to understand how to protect your skin down there (yes, that skin) from issues that can occur when spinning.
ICYMI, we're talking about your vulvar region—not your vagina. Melissa Mauskar, MD, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Dermatology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, tells Health that women commonly misidentify this part of their body. "Everything on the outside of your body is the vulva," Dr. Mauskar notes. And because of the close contact those areas—the vulva, buttocks, and inner thighs—with a bike saddles, those body parts are most likely to be impacted by spinning due to friction and moisture, says Dr. Mauskar, making that skin "a lot more susceptible to irritation and sensitivity."
Here's what you need to know about any issues that can stem from your newfound cycling habit—and what you can do about them to get back on the bike ASAP.
What skin conditions can stem from cycling?
The most common skin condition that can occur from cycling is intertrigo, or as it's more commonly known, chafing. According to MedlinePlus, a resource of the US National Library of Medicine, chafing occurs when skin rubs agains other skin, clothing, or other materials. This irritation usually presents as red, itchy, or painful-to-touch skin.
Another problem cyclists can face is folliculitis—a condition that looks like a sudden breakout but is actually a skin infection that starts in the hair follicles, per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). This condition occurs "when hair follicles become inflamed from a mixture of occlusion [blockage], pressure, friction, and bacteria," Jennifer Vickers, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Austin, Texas, tells Health. It's also more likely to occur when your skin is damp and hot—like what happens during a cycling class—per the AAD.
And ultimately, if left untreated, folliculitis can develop into what's commonly known as saddle sores, which are described as "a range of skin ailments on the buttocks, genitals and inner thigh," per a 2020 scoping review in the journal Methods and Protocols. According to the paper, saddle sores start out as "minor chafing, or as folliculitis, an inflammation of the hair follicle, and can progress into severe skin abrasion, deep skin infection and abscess."
Saddle sores can also be difficult to treat, partially because not a lot is known about them, and in females may also lead to genital trauma, sexual dysfunction, vulvar disease and genitourinary infection (essentially, a urinary tract infection). Dr. Vickers says, 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."
How can you treat or prevent skin issues from cycling?
To help treat or prevent any kind of irritation caused by friction, Sarah Hambleton, PA-C, a dermatology physician's assistant in Manhattan, recommends applying a barrier cream before you ride to reduce the impact of friction (her favorite, and the one most mentioned by experts we spoke to, is the drugstore staple, Aquaphor). You can also use petroleum jelly to help protect the chafed area as it heals, per MedlinePlus.
Dr. Mauskar also recommends finding a product that has zinc oxide as an active ingredient (think: medicated baby powder or creams) for its anti-inflammatory properties but cautions that trying to scrub these off could actually cause more irritation.
If you're suffering from folliculitis or saddle sores, Dr. Mauskar recommends using an over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide rinse a couple of times a week. Warm compresses and unmedicated ointments can also help, but it's important to seek professional treatment for these conditions to prevent further issues.
In addition to any topical treatments, all of the experts agreed that clothing plays an important role in preventing these skin conditions. For starters, choose breathable, moisture-wicking clothing that fits properly. Investing in padded shorts and/or a padded bike seat can also help reduce the impact of friction.
And as important as wearing the proper clothing is, it's equally as important that you remove your workout clothes as soon as possible after a ride. Hambleton notes 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.
Prevention can also look like skipping a ride once in a while: Jodi Shays, owner of Queen Bee Salon & Spa, says she can usually tell when her bikini wax clients are frequent riders due to skin irritation and increased sensitivity. Shays advises against riding for 12 hours after waxing or shaving. "If you just got a chemical peel on your face you wouldn't go out in the sun right after," she notes. "This is the same thing." By removing the natural barrier (the hair) meant to protect the skin in this region, your skin is compromised. "It's a recipe for inflammation and irritation," she says.
Finally, ensuring your handlebar and seat height are set up properly can aid in preventing skin irritation and inflammation. Hambleton, who is also an indoor cyclist, notes the importance of making sure nothing is too high or too low so you can distribute your weight evenly and not put too much pressure on the area. She also recommends taking rides where you're not always seated. Shays also cautions clients against "pounding" their body back on the seat when coming down from the standing position.
When should you seek treatment for skin issues from cycling?
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 states, "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 doctor, every expert emphasized these conditions are common and there's no reason for embarrassment when it comes to seeking treatment. As Dr. Mauskar explains, many of her patients end up having more problems by the time they finally come in because they try to treat these areas with a variety of products that only exacerbate their issues.
So, if you're going to spend all that money on your own 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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