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What is chafing?
Chafing is a term applied to the changes that occur in the skin due to moisture and friction related to skin against skin or skin against a surface such as textile interactions.
When the skin rubs against itself or another surface, horizontal shearing forces can loosen the superficial layers of skin similar to exfoliation, although the process can be harsher and more persistent depending on the time and nature of friction occurring. Depending on the speed of friction and location, heat can build in the skin. Moisture accumulates in the superficial layers of skin allowing them to be more easily abraded or irritated when friction occurs.
The result is an abraded skin surface with potential maceration or breakdown of the skin. This leaves the skin more susceptible to the potential for secondary infection from yeast and bacteria and other microbes.
Is chafing the only skin change from friction?
Consider chafing in a spectrum of frictional disorders of the skin. Friction results in the potential for:
- Maceration of the skin
- Ulcers, skin breakdown, potential decubitus
What are common areas of the body where chafing might occur?
The most common areas of the body affected by chafing are where two skin surfaces can potentially interact with each other and/or textiles. This includes areas such as:
- Between the legs
- Under the arms
- Under the breasts
In these particular areas, moisture builds and friction from movement occurs resulting in the perfect formula for chafing.
That being said, I urge my readers to consider the role that our skin interacting with any form of textile can impact skin sensitivities. What many of us consider chafing tends to be obvious because of the type of friction and perhaps an activity that creates significant skin changes. However, our skin interacting with clothing, bedsheets, towels, furniture, can also be affected daily by low levels of of friction and inflammation that can accumulate over time and trigger more sensitivities.
What are some factors that can exacerbate chafing?
The basic formula for chafing is :
Friction + Moisture = Chafing
Let’s start with friction. Friction is, quite simply put, two surfaces rubbing against each other. With regards to chafing, this can be:
- Skin against skin
- Skin against textiles
- Skin against the seams of textiles
Recognizing that these are the sources of friction, chafing can be reduced by creating a less abrasive surface to reduce the impact of these shearing forces.
- Frictional forces from skin against skin can be reduced by hydrating or lubricating these surfaces to reduce the potentially abrasive quality
- Fricitonal forces of skin against textiles can be reduced by keeping the skin better hydrated while also choosing smoother textured fabrics or adding softness to fabrics through conditioning agents found in laundry softeners.
- Frictional forces against seams can be reduced by seam placement by clothing, sheets, and other product designs.
Next, the moisture content of the skin impacts both the potential for chafing to occur as well as the severity. Moisture can accumulate in areas of skin subject to friction from:
- Humidity from the environment
- Water incompletely dried after a shower or swimming
- Moisture left in clothing or textiles from incomplete drying
Clothing contributes to horizontal shearing forces that trigger friction, in particular coarse or abrasive textiles. Athletic gear is increasingly focused on utilizing textiles with smoother surfaces as well as carefully placing seams outside of the points of friction to reduce the shearing forces triggered by these points of contact.
Are there other factors to consider when it comes to chafing and our skin?
There are several factors that contribute towards the tendency towards chafing and the severity of chafing for individuals that experience it. The most relevant factors are:
- Skincare products
- External heat source
- Presence of hair
- Presence of skin lesions or growths
- Duration of friction
- Speed of friction
Are there any tips on how to treat/remedy chafing?
With the formula for chafing in mind: Friction + Moisture = Chafing, to treat or reduce the tendency toward chafing, each factor of the equation can be addressed.
To reduce horizontal shearing forces from friction, try to focus on smoother interactions between skin surfaces against skin or textiles. This would include the application of products that allow the skin to glide such as petrolatum or lubricating gels. Choosing softer textiles with minimized seams or seams simply not placed at the point of friction helps significantly.
Reducing moisture is important as well. Applying an antiperspirant or powders can reduce the build-up of sweat contributing to moisture. Completely drying folds after showers or swimming, potentially using a hair dryer for hard-to-dry areas, can also help.
What is Tribology?
The term tribology is applied in mechanical engineering to study friction and shearing forces on a surface. This has been applied to textiles to gain a better understanding of surface engineering of textiles and how it relates to skin.