How to Prevent and Treat Painful Skin Chafing, According to Dermatologists

June 29, 2020

Chafing can result in raw and painful rashes, but these treatments can soothe the skin.

It's such a familiar scenario: After a day of (sweaty!) fun in the sun, your inner thighs are red, raw, and painful. Or when you get back from Zumba class, the skin under your sports bra straps is burning like crazy.

Yes, you're experiencing skin chafing, a rash-like inflammation (medically known as intertrigo) that happens when moist skin rubs against other moist skin or clothing. It's common in skin folds where sweat becomes trapped, such as the groin, the armpits, and under the breasts, and between the thighs, especially after walking or other forms of exercise. Wearing tight or loose clothing, long-distance running or cycling, hot weather, and having sensitive skin or being overweight can also increase your risk of chafing.

The most common signs of skin chafing include itching, red and inflamed skin, burning, stinging, and sometimes even bleeding or swelling. And because raw, moisture-laden skin invites microbial overgrowth, a skin infection can follow.

"Abrasion from moisture and friction makes microscopic cuts in the skin, and salt from sweat can exacerbate the irritation," says Cameron Rokhsar, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. In more severe cases, skin chafing can cause painful blisters, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Want to avoid chafed skin this season, or at least lessen its severity? Follow the dermatologist-approved advice below:

Cleanse with care.

Wash inflamed areas with a gentle body wash or plain lukewarm water to soothe irritation from dried sweat and help control fungal growth. Pat dry, don't rub-then, if you can, let the inflamed skin air out for a few moments to make sure all dampness is gone. "You might even dry the area with a fan or a blowdryer set on cool," Dr. Rokhsar says.

Calm it with ointments.

Treat chafed skin twice a day with a zinc oxide ointment (often used in diaper rash products) or a balm, such as Aquaphor Healing Ointment or Eucerin Original Healing Cream to soothe the abrasion and restore damaged skin. If you need something stronger for a one-time incident, try applying a topical over-the-counter corticosteroid twice a day for three days, then taper off and quit before the two-week mark. "You don't want to use steroids long-term due to potential side effects like thinning skin, stretch marks, and spider veins," Dr. Rokhsar says.

Consider medical options.

If chafing is from excessive sweating, you may have a condition called hyperhidrosis, which can be treated with prescription-strength aluminum chloride antiperspirants, Botox injections in the problem spots, oral meds, or MiraDry, an FDA-cleared treatment that destroys sweat glands in the underarm area. Talk to your dermatologist, who can figure out the best in-office treatment plan for you.

Interrupt the friction.

Applying a thick, slippery product like petroleum jelly on chafe-prone areas reduces friction and prevents abrasion. "Products with silicone, beeswax, or shea butter provide the same benefit," says Temitayo Ogunleye, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. Don't rely on oily lotions, which won't last as long. "You want a product that you have to scoop out of the jar or is specially formulated for chafing," Dr. Ogunleye says. If needed, reapply after about three hours.

Try an antiperspirant.

Over-the-counter antiperspirants, like Certain Dri, contain aluminum chloride, which can block sweat in any moisture-prone skin fold, such as under the breasts or in the inner thigh or groin area-not just armpits! Apply a light layer and let it dry before any activity. Consider adding an antifungal powder (like this one) to help further wick away moisture and protect against infections, but avoid putting it on or around orifices meant to be moist, including the vagina.

Wear protective clothing.

Moisture-trapping cotton is not your friend when it comes to chafed skin-instead, choose synthetic fabrics like polyester or Lycra, which aren't as absorbent. Look for garments that have flat seams or are seamless, and remove any interior tags; this also helps prevent skin irritation. Even when you're not working out, wearing tight, moisture-wicking athletic gear like sports bras and compression shorts (slip them on under a flowy dress) can reduce friction and create a barrier between two skin surfaces or between skin and clothing.


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