Acne, Staph Infections & The Gym: The Alarming Correlation

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Anyone who's ever suffered from acne knows all too well that some breakouts can seem impossible to treat. Clearing your skin is a challenge in itself, and keeping it clear is a proverbial game of cat and mouse. And only after it gets really bad do most of us finally make an appointment with a derm for prescription-strength products and pro guidance. But if your acne isn't going away, or is even getting worse, a visit to the doc right away is paramount because, as it turns out, you could have a staph infection. During an interview on an entirely different subject, renowned board-certified dermatologist Karyn Grossman, MD, (patients include Gwyneth Paltrow, Molly Sims, and Linda Evangelista) brought up an alarming trend that she's seeing in a growing number of her patients in Los Angeles — acne that's hard to treat due to staph infection. (Our jaws dropped, too.) "It’s amazing to me how many people that have come in [lately] with acne have also had staph," Dr. Grossman told us last week. "I think because gyms and exercise places are growing grounds for staph...everybody seems to be picking it up."

I have been seeing it more...and it’s usually [in] the people whose acne may not be cooperating with other medications.

Dr. Karyn Grossman
What exactly is staph?
Staphylococcus infection, or "staph," is caused by bacteria on the skin or in the nose. It is highly contagious, must be both diagnosed and treated by a doctor, and was once primarily associated with hospitals. According to the Mayo Clinic, staph severity can range from minor skin problems (in this case, the inflamed acne is the symptom) to "a life-threatening infection of the inner lining of your heart." And, the clinic notes, "[I]f staph bacteria invade your bloodstream, you may develop a type of infection that affects your entire body." Staph infections are becoming more common. "I am not sure that the staph bug is ever going to go back to just being in hospitals, which is what we used to see," Dr. Grossman told us. "It was just people who were hospital workers that had to worry about it, [but] now we see it coming from the gym and hot-yoga studios. It’s pretty impressive how much it’s around." (Staph may also sound familiar because Khloé Kardashian suffered from it in the fall.)

What does this have to do with acne?
Well, the acne itself is often the host of the infection. Dr. Grossman said she is tipped off when acne doesn't respond to medication and is highly inflamed or giving off heat. She will then diagnose it with a skin culture. "I have been seeing it more...and it’s usually [in] the people whose acne may not be cooperating with other medications, or it’s really what I call hot; it’s really inflammatory... There will be a teeny little white spot with a tremendous amount of red around it," she explained. "So I started culturing [these patients] and all kinds of staph has been growing, and it’s amazing how treating it has been so effective."

Gyms and exercise places are growing grounds for staph...everybody seems to be picking it up.

Dr. Karyn Grossman
How is staph-infected acne treated?
"[We] treat them with the appropriate antibiotics — Hibiclens [for the skin] — and we treat their noses, because they normally have staph carriage in their nose," Dr. Grossman said. "It may or may not clear up the acne, but it takes the tremendous heat out of it." Translation: You must see your doctor.

How can you prevent it from happening?
"I tell people that if you’re going to yoga, bring your own mat and towels. Some gyms have wipes to wipe down equipment; that can be helpful, and once you’re done, go in the bathroom and wash," Dr. Grossman said. "But it depends on what you’re doing. If you’re just sitting on a bicycle and not touching a lot of things, you can just wash your hands and go home [to shower] and change your clothes. And don’t wear them six times [without washing them]!" It's also important to be aware of your surroundings, said Dr. Grossman. Little cuts can serve as entryways for the bacteria, for instance. And avoid any environment that you know could cause an infection: "I have this one patient, every time she does hot yoga she gets a staph infection at this one hot-yoga studio," Dr. Grossman said. Moral of the story: Be careful, and if you have acne that isn't going away go see a derm, stat.

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