When you’re out hiking, walking, running, biking, or simply moving, few things are as uncomfortable as skin chafing. Like blisters, skin chafing has friction as an underlying cause; however, skin chafing affects a much larger area. Chafing can be quite painful and is one of the most common issues with repetitive motion exercise.
The good news is that once you understand what chafing is and why it happens, you can avoid it– or treat it when it happens. Today, we’re going to talk about armpit chafing and help you avoid this irritating problem.
What Is Armpit Chafing?
Have you ever been out on a hike or run and noticed that your armpits feel like they’re on fire? That’s armpit chafing. Armpit chafing refers to the irritation and inflammation of the skin under your arms. It’s caused by friction or repetitive rubbing– for instance, the kind of repetitive rubbing that occurs as you swing your arms as you walk.
The skin under your arms is actually quite delicate and responsive to friction. It can chafe from tight clothing, skin-on-skin contact, or repeated arm movements. Arm motion isn’t really something you can avoid while hiking, walking or running. Friction from this motion can lead to redness, tenderness, inflammation, pain, and sometimes even the formation of blisters or sores.
Common Armpit Chafing Scenarios
In our experience, here are some common scenarios where prevention is key:
- Running or Walking at the Beach – the beach is usually hot, salty, and humid. It creates friction and salt gets left on your skin, even if you didn’t go in the water. Using an anti-chafing product before heading out is highly recommended if going on a long walk or run on or near the beach. Especially if you plan on swimming before.
- Long Runs – running uses a lot of arm motion, and that’s why many runners utilize anti chafing products under their arms. Particularly, running on any hot or humid day increases the amount you sweat, which can cause irritation.
- Trail Running With Hydration Vest – in our experience, training with a hydration vest can cause chafing due to the location of the vest under the armpit region.
What Is The Difference Between Chafing and Blisters?
Chafing is different from blisters, although they can sometimes occur together. Chafing is primarily characterized by skin irritation. The skin becomes red and sore, and may feel raw or sensitive. In some cases, the skin may develop small, shallow blisters. These blisters are typically filled with clear fluid and can be quite painful.
Blisters, on the other hand, are fluid-filled pockets that form within the layers of the skin as a protective response. They can occur due to prolonged or intense friction in the armpit area, but they are less commonly seen in the armpit than chafing. Usually when you get blisters, they are a foot problem. Blisters are usually raised, bubble-like formations that can be filled with clear fluid, blood, or even pus if the damage is really severe.
While both chafing and blisters can result from friction, chafing tends to occur first. If the friction continues or intensifies, blisters may develop as a further response of the skin to protect itself. The presence of blisters indicates more severe damage to the skin.
Where Else Does Chafing Occur?
Skin chafing can occur anywhere there’s skin-on-skin contact or tight clothing while you’re hiking. The following places are some of the most common locations for skin chafing:
- Thighs: The inner thighs are a common site of chafing, especially if you’re wearing ill-fitting pants.
- Groin: The groin area, where the thighs meet the torso, is susceptible to chafing, especially if moisture accumulates due to sweating or inadequate ventilation.
- Buttocks: Butt chafing, monkey butt, whatever you want to call it… Butt chafing is definitely an experience worth avoiding. To learn how to do that, check out our article here.
- Nipples: Another area of sensitive skin, both men and women can experience nipple chafing while hiking. This is why you need a comfortable, nonabrasive base layer, because friction between the shirt fabric and the nipples can cause serious chafing and even bleeding due to how thin your nipple skin is. Runners will often put small bandages over their nipples to prevent chafing.
- Feet: Your feet are subject to friction and rubbing during hiking, and foot chafing very quickly leads to blisters, especially in the heels, ankles, and toes. If your hiking footwear, sandals, or running shoes fits poorly or you’re moving with damp, thin socks, chafing and blisters may be in your future.
- Backpack Straps: The areas where backpack straps rest on the body, including your waistline, can experience chafing. The continuous pressure and rubbing against the skin, combined with moisture from sweat, can lead to chafing. Avoid this by making sure your straps are snug but not too tight and wearing moisture-wicking clothing.
How To Prevent Armpit Chafing
Chafing is typically something that occurs as your hike, run, or walk progresses, so it’s not like you can immediately stop, treat the chafing, and go home. Once chafing starts, you’re kind of stuck with it for the rest of your time out– so it’s better to prevent it if possible.
Wear The Right Clothes
The biggest contributors to armpit chafing are friction and moisture. One good way to approach both of these concerns is to make sure that you have moisture-wicking clothing that fits you well. Loose-fitting garments reduce friction and allow air circulation, minimizing the chances of chafing. You want to avoid cotton clothing, since cotton simply absorbs moisture. Instead, look for high performance synthetics that draw moisture away from your skin and actually move it away, rather than just getting soaked.
Tight fitting workout clothes can also work well for some, but can cause issues for others. Experimentation for a big long day with anything is highly recommended.
Also, if you’ve got breasts, you want to make sure you have a sports bra that fits. An ill-fitting sports bra can shove your breast tissue into your armpits, which can create a moisture-trapping skin fold. Choose a sports bra that supports your bust and wicks away moisture, and make sure that you pick one that keeps your breasts where they should be– not in your armpits! For bigger-busted female hikers, this may mean avoiding compression-style sports bras; look for ones that encapsulate each breast instead.
Armpit Chafing Products
You don’t want your underarms to be too dry, but you also don’t want them to be too wet. Both pits that are too wet and pits that are too dry are both susceptible to chafing.
Topical anti-chafing products can be very helpful in this regard. One old hiker’s trick is petroleum jelly, but a lot of people do find that fairly uncomfortable. Today’s topical products fall into two primary categories: powders and oils/creams/balms.
Anti-chafing powders are designed to absorb moisture and reduce friction. They are made with moisture-absorbing powders that help create a barrier between skin surfaces to reduce friction.
You may already have anti-chafing powder in your kitchen. Cornstarch can work as an anti-chafing powder. So can baby powder– that’s what it was designed for! But neither of these products are ideal for very long days. You may want something more powerful, like one of these:
- Chassis Premium Powder ICE – $22.45 from Chassis or Amazon
- Anti Monkey Butt Powder – $6.99 from Amazon
- Anti Monkey Butt Powder for Women – $9.99 from Amazon
- Lush Silky Underwear Dusting Powder – $3.50 from Lush
- Gold Bond Medicated Powder – $4-$6 from Amazon
- Gold Bond Body Powder Spray – $7.79 from Amazon
Anti-Chafing Oils, Creams, and Balms
Oils, creams, lubricating balms, and other forms of skin goop are great prevention methods for skin chafing. Some of them may be easier to apply than powder, and create a thicker protective barrier. These can also help soothe chafing once it starts, and stop it from progressing further.
These products typically contain lubricating ingredients that reduce friction and provide the right kind of moisture to the skin. They are often enriched with ingredients like aloe vera for pain relief and shea butter or vitamin E for added skin nourishment. Sometimes, people will use shea butter alone or coconut oil as an anti-chafing balm, but these have limited effectiveness compared to products like:
- Body Glide Body Anti Chafing Stick – starting at $5.49 from Body Glide and on Amazon
- Gold Bond Friction Defense Stick – $6-$7 from Amazon
- Monistat Chafing Relief Powder Gel – $6 from Amazon
- Chamois Butt’r Original Anti-Chafe Cream – $16-$19 from Amazon
- Aquaphor Healing Ointment – $13 from Amazon
When you’re applying these products, make sure to achieve full, even coverage in your armpits and other high-friction areas. You will likely need to reapply at some point if your activity is more than a couple hours, especially if you sweat a lot.
For us, it is particularly important to cover well under the armpit areas and backwards where your lats may rub against your arm.
What About Deodorant?
Deodorant alone won’t really help with chafing as much as antiperspirant will. Antiperspirant reduces the amount that your armpits sweat, which will help keep them dry and reduce friction. While deodorant acts as a lubricant and reduces friction, it isn’t the most effective for heavy-duty use. Stick deodorant and antiperspirant are more effective than sprays or roll-on liquids, as sticks create a thicker skin barrier.
If you want to use the best deodorant to prevent armpit chafing, look for deodorants or antiperspirants that explicitly mention anti-chafing properties or are designed to be gentle on the skin. Some may even be labeled as “anti-chafing” or “anti-friction.”
How To Treat Armpit Chafing
They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but that old adage won’t help you when you’re out in the backcountry with burning pits. Skin chafing is skin damage, so you really do need to take care of it when it happens!
Treating Armpit Chafing While Still Active
Treating skin chafing in the backcountry is a little bit different than treating it at home, where you have access to more supplies. Here are some things you can do to feel better immediately, and some ways to treat chafing once you’re home.
Stop the Activity
Take a break from the activity that is causing the chafing. Continuing the activity can worsen the irritation and make the chafing more painful. Take a break to treat your skin, and don’t try to push on.
Find a Clean Area
You need to find somewhere that isn’t too dusty to clean your chafed skin. Try to find somewhere in the shade so that you’re a little more comfortable.
Clean Your Pits
Gently clean the chafed area with a baby wipe or water. Do not use harsh soaps or alcohol wipes, and don’t scrub– that’s just more friction. Gently pat the area dry with a clean towel or allow it to air dry. If the skin is still very red and swollen after cleaning, you can also take the time to ice it if you’re carrying ice packs or instant cold packs. Taking the time to reduce the initial redness can help you see how bad the chafing actually is.
Now’s the time to add anti-chafing product. You can use a thin layer of petroleum jelly or an anti-chafing balm or stick to create a barrier to reduce friction. Make sure to carry something like this in your first aid kit! You can also apply aloe vera if you have it to help reduce the pain.
Fix the Friction
Look for the cause of any friction. If the chafing is caused by friction from clothing, try to adjust or loosen the clothing in that area to reduce friction. If possible, change into a clean, dry shirt to promote airflow and minimize further irritation. If the chafing is caused by friction from your backpack’s straps, take the time to adjust them and make sure your pack is fitting you correctly.
Take more breaks to keep an eye on your skin. Let it rest and clean it when you can. If you can keep the area exposed to air while you’re resting or when you make it to your campsite, it can aid in drying and healing.
Pack Extra Supplies
If you frequently experience chafing, consider carrying extra supplies in your backpack, such as anti-chafing balms, lubricants, or extra shirts. Putting a sweaty shirt back on after you’ve cleaned and treated your armpit chafing feels miserable.
Treating Armpit Chafing At Home
Once you’ve gotten home, you can continue to treat chafed armpits. Chafing will usually heal up in a couple of days. You need to focus on keeping the area clean and dry.
When you’re bathing, gently clean the armpit area with mild soap and lukewarm water. Don’t use hot water– it’ll hurt! Avoid harsh soaps and like in the field, don’t scrub. When you’re done, pat the area dry with a clean towel, or even better, let it air dry.
Do not shave your pits while you’re recovering from skin chafing! Even if you regularly shave, let it be for a couple of days. Your skin needs time to recover, and dragging a razor blade over it is the last thing you want to do.
Soothe and Moisturize
While your armpits are healing, you can use ointments or lotion with soothing ingredients like aloe vera, chamomile, or painkillers like lidocaine or hydrocortisone. These can calm the irritated skin and promote healing.
You might not need a moisturizer, but make sure you don’t dry out the area too much. Avoid anything with alcohol or fragrances until your skin is calmed down.
Air It Out
Allow the armpit area to breathe. Whenever possible, avoid covering your chafed armpits with tight clothing or bandages to promote airflow and prevent further irritation. Stick to loose, breathable clothes that don’t rub against the chafed area.
Until your armpit skin is feeling better, avoid strenuous exercise or activities that trigger sweating. You want to avoid sweating excessively as much as you can. Give it a couple of days and then you can be back out – hopefully with less friction this time!
It is extremely rare, but chafed skin can become infected– especially if you’re in a really hot, humid area or you’re naturally prone to excessive sweating, since too much moisture can promote infection. Keep an eye out for signs of infection, such as increased redness, swelling, pus, or excessive pain. If you suspect an infection, seek medical attention promptly for proper evaluation and treatment.
Armpit chafing isn’t the end of the world– it just hurts like it is. We hope that this guide will help you prevent armpit chafing in the future, and keep you in the know about how to treat it if it does happen.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about