Chafing is an irritation of the skin caused by an area of skin rubbing against clothing or another area of body. The friction causes the skin to become red, raw, irritated and prone to infection. If severe, the skin can even break open and bleed. Treatment of the irritated skin can help soothe the pain, but prevention is probably even more important.
Causes of Skin Chafing
Chafing results from repetitive friction of skin rubbing on adjacent skin or the fabric of your clothing. It is especially common in people doing repetitive exercises such as running, walking or cycling. Chafing can occur anywhere on the body but most often occurs in the area of the underarms and inner thighs due to the constant friction of the arms and legs moving. Improperly fitting clothing contributes to chafing, as well; for example, runners often experience chafed nipples from the fabric of their shirts rubbing their skin. The rubbing of a bra strap is another common cause. Sweating may also be a factor in chafing as the saltiness of the sweat can irritate the skin further. Sometimes chafing can be associated with being overweight, as areas of excess skin may tend to rub against other areas.
Prevention of Skin Chafing Is Key
The best way to deal with chafed skin is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
- Selecting proper clothing can be an important part of prevention. Clothing that does not fit properly may rub your skin. Avoid cotton and choose synthetic materials that wick away sweat to help keep the skin dry. Athletic tights and cycling shorts are specifically made to reduce friction in areas that are prone to chafing. Also be aware of tags or seams in clothing that may rub you wrong.
- Keeping skin dry with antiperspirant and baby powder helps some people.
- Applying lotion or petroleum jelly may lubricate and reduce friction between areas of skin that are rubbing each other. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends use of petroleum jelly to help prevent chafing while running or biking.
- Using adhesive bandages or tape can help prevent chafing on the nipples. Standard adhesive bandages can work, but there are also several consumer products available specifically to cover the nipple area.
- If excess weight causes areas of skin to rub against each other, losing weight should solve that problem permanently, but getting there may require use of over-the-counter drugstore solutions. Some consumer brands include Body Glide, Gold Bond Friction Defense and Squeaky Cheeks.
Caring for Chafed Skin
If you do experience chafed skin, there are ways you can help soothe the pain and help it heal. Gently wash the area with warm water and soap to reduce the chance of infection. Pat dry – don't rub or you might irritate it further. Keeping dry is important, so dusting dry skin with baby powder or cornstarch may help. "Excess moisture around your privates can lead to skin irritation and unpleasant odors," noted DoctorOz.com. "Use cornstarch to keep this area dry and fresh. Avoid talcum powder for this purpose; application of the substance to this area of the body may slightly increase the risk of ovarian cancer in some women, although the risk is still unclear." Don't use cornstarch on wet skin or on a fungal infection, as it acts as food for skin fungus.
Lotions may help soothe the irritated skin, as well as provide friction-reducing lubrication. Your health care professional may even suggest a medicated ointment to relieve pain and help the skin heal. Also, try to give your skin some time to heal; take a few days off from exercise that has caused skin chafing. If your chafed skin is extremely painful or does not heal soon, consult your doctor to make sure you don’t have a more serious skin infection.
Doug Dohrman earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Iowa. Following post-doctoral training at UCSF, he directed courses in neuroscience and histology for first year medical students and has also taught in anatomy, physiology and biostatistics. His research background is in cell and molecular biology and he is currently involved with medical editing/writing.