On an uneventful day I was sitting at my desk when I started scratching the skin on my wrist around my Garmin. Then I began scratching under my Garmin. I undid the watch band only to reveal a nasty red rash with peeling skin and little oozy bumps. Apologies if this image was not one you wanted to envision, but maybe you’re a fellow watch rash sufferer like myself.
I used to say running shoes are an extension of runners because they theoretically become a part of our body. One of the best compliments runners can give a pair is that we don’t even notice we’re wearing them while we run. Most of us don’t wear our running shoes to bed, however, or shower with them on. In these instances, wearables—like a Garmin, Fitbit, or Apple Watch—are the closest examples of gear that become one with our bodies.
My Garmin is my unpaid personal assistant, life coach, or even doctor (though I must stress that you keep up with annual exams with a, uh, human). Besides running stats, it tells me how well I sleep and how stressed out I am. It suggests breathing exercises to help me relax, reminds me about appointments, and notifies me about the weather, podcast downloads, e-mails, texts, menses—you get the picture. So, naturally, I wear it 24/7.
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What Brands Recommend
Apple has an article on its site offering recommendations on how to wear your watch. A snug and comfortable fit is recommended so it will stay in place and its sensors will be able to read your heart rate. A watch that’s too loose can move around and rub your wrist, creating friction against the skin.
Fitbit’s site has a page on skin irritation, as well, with tips for prevention. Keep your watch clean, keep it dry, don’t wear it too tight, and give your wrist a rest by removing the band for an hour after extended wear.
Taking off your watch for charging is one way to get some rest time, but with more and more models having an extended battery life, you might not un-notch your watch for days—maybe even weeks.
What an Expert Had to Say
I contacted dermatologist Cynthia Bartus, M.D., who’s also an ultrarunner and triathlete. Bartus is the program director at Advanced Dermatology Associates and the Division of Dermatology at Lehigh Valley Health Network, Pennsylvania. She finished fifth in the women’s division at the 2021 Worlds End Ultramarathon.
Reiterating Apple and Fitbit, Bartus advises runners to wear your watch tight enough so it avoids sliding but loose enough to allow your skin to “breathe.”
“If you see indentations on the skin when you take off the watch, it is probably too tight,” she said.
Even if you wear your watch swimming laps, Bartus recommends taking it off when you bathe. This is an easy way to create a window of “wrist rest time” since you likely wash yourself more frequently than you charge your watch (because hygiene).
Said Bartus, “The exposure to soaps and hot water are likely not great for the watch and watch band. Also, the soaps and products used in the shower can accumulate under the watch, leading to an irritant dermatitis or contact dermatitis (itchy, red, sometimes painful skin).”
Extended wearing can also lead to lichenification, which is the thickening of skin due to constant rubbing or contact on the skin.
Wristband materials vary from nylon to leather to silicone. Of those three, silicone is the least offensive for sensitive skin.
“However, this is not a one-size-fits-all rule,” said Bartus. “It is sometimes a matter of trial and error to find the right band, but silicone is a good place to start.”
The type of metal behind the watch face is another consideration. Bartus recommends choosing stainless steel over nickel-based materials.
The Care and Keeping of Your Watch-Wearing Wrist
Below is Bartus’s breakdown on how to treat watch rash and the best watch-wearing practices. I followed her tips and I’m happy to say, the skin on my wrist is no longer heinously inflamed—or smelly.
Common Causes of Skin Irritation:
- Sensitivity or allergy to the material of the watch band
- Sensitivity or allergy to the watch’s metal components
- Trapping of sweat, dirt, soaps, perfumes, or colognes under the watch
- Watch band fit is too tight or too loose, which can lead to chafing or blistering
- Take a break from wearing the watch.
- Avoid harsh soaps and cleansers on your skin. Gently wash the skin with fragrance-free cleanser that’s specifically formulated for sensitive skin. Use just your fingers (avoid wash cloths, buffs, and rough exfoliating fabrics).
- Frequently apply a fragrance-free heavy moisturizer to restore the skin barrier. My favorite is petroleum jelly (no fragrances, additives, or preservatives).
- If the irritation is not improving, a visit to your healthcare provider may be warranted for a prescription of a topical steroid.
- Once the skin has healed and the watch has been cleaned, wearing the watch can resume. But if the irritation recurs despite following the tips above, a new band or change in metals may be necessary.
- Take your watch off at night. Avoid wearing your watch 24/7.
- Remove your watch for bathing and showering.
- Find metal and band materials that feel comfortable. They should not make your skin red or itchy.
- Ensure your watch band fits appropriately (neither too tight nor too loose).
- Periodically clean the band and back of the watch to remove any buildup of dirt, sweat, soaps, and personal care products.
Amanda is a test editor at Runner’s World who has run the Boston Marathon every year since 2013; she's a former professional baker with a master’s in gastronomy and she carb-loads on snickerdoodles.