One frustrating side effect of mandated face mask wearing during the coronavirus outbreak is that it’s making many people break out. And that’s spawned the term “maskne” — or “mask” plus “acne,” referring to the blemishes that result from wearing a face covering.
Acne was already the most common skin affliction in America, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, plaguing up to 50 million people a year and costing more than $1.2 billion in treatments and lost productivity for those whose cases were so severe that they sought medical attention.
And the pandemic is exacerbating the problem — not just from the friction of masks, particularly unwashed masks, rubbing against people’s faces, but also due to the stress of the numerous crises hitting the country at once right now. And research has found a strong correlation between acne and stress.
The Tokyo Weekender, a popular English beauty magazine in Japan, has declared maskne “one of 2020’s most widespread skin care problems,” and sufferers have taken to Twitter
to gripe about their new crops of pimples popping up. And even if you’ve been spared so far, the summer’s sweat-inducing temperatures and increasing humidity are poised to make many complexions worse.
“We’re definitely seeing ‘maskne’ more,” Dr. Lucy Chen, a dermatologist practicing at Riverchase Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in south Florida, told MarketWatch. “We see it a lot more as the summer months are happening, with the extra humidity in the air and the extra heat actually increasing the amount of stress and oil production” in the skin.
She added that her practice has also been seeing a lot of health care workers suffering acne, bruising and rashes after wearing masks for 12-hour shifts or more.
So what’s causing it? The scientific term is “acne mechanica,” meaning the mechanical friction of the mask fabric rubbing against your skin is causing breakouts. “It’s creating a warm, moist environment for extra skin oils to proliferate, and for bacteria to become trapped, thus clogging pores,” Chen explained. “It’s similar to what we see in athletes wearing tight helmets or chin straps.”
Some zits and blackheads are a small price to pay to help slow the spread of COVID-19, of course, especially as the U.S. has reported record numbers of new cases this week, and more than 124,468 Americans have already died from the coronavirus.
But there are ways to help prevent “maskne,” as well as methods for treating the blemishes that appear. Here’s what you need to know.
Wash your face. Prevention is the best medicine, so washing your face in the morning and evening — and even any time that you take your mask off — is key. “After coming home, immediately wash the face and reduce the oil on the skin,” Chen suggested. You can even wipe your face with a clean wash cloth soaked in warm water.
But be gentle. It may be tempting to reach for the strongest acne cleanser or treatment that you can find, but Chen recommends selecting gentle products. Your skin is already irritated by the mask, and a too-powerful cleanser could worsen it. If you do select an acne-fighting wash, she recommends mild ones with salicylic acid to remove excess oils and unclog pores. And maybe only use that salicylic acid cleaner in the evening, and use a gentler treatment throughout the day.
Wash your mask. That reusable fabric mask has absorbed your sweat, maybe some of your saliva, any droplets from coughing and sneezing, your makeup and your moisturizer, let alone whatever else it has come into contact with when you’ve gone out or taken it off and put it down. It’s a breeding ground for all kinds of microbes, so you want to wash it regularly. “You need to wash your mask on a daily basis, or even rotating through a few different masks would be a good idea,” said Chen. Toss your masks in the washing machine, or hand wash with soap and hot water. Throw them in a hot dryer, if care directions allow. And store clean masks in new paper bags to keep them free from germs.
Choose lightweight mask material. If you’re not a health care worker or a first responder working on the front lines, choose a lighter material that will let skin breathe more. “If you’re just making a trip to the grocery store or walking the dog … I would suggest a 100% cotton mask for breathability,” Chen said.
Do not squeeze or pop anything. A popped zit not only takes longer to heal than if you’d just left it alone, but popping it can also spread bacteria and make the flare-up bigger. “People are going to want to deal with their acne right away, but avoid squeezing, popping or overly scrubbing with loofahs, because your skin is already fragile from the friction of the mask,” said Chen. In short, it will just make things worse.
Practice spot treatments under your mask. If you’ve already got a breakout, or you feel one swelling under the skin’s surface, Chen recommends wearing acne patches (sometimes called pimple patches), which are small moisture-absorbing hydrocolloid bandages usually cut into small circles. They’re essentially tiny bandages for zits that can dry pimples out while preventing you from picking at them. You can wear them overnight, or Chen has another hack: “I apply them under my mask, where no one can see them,” she says. “I put one of those on during the day so I’m not touching it, and the mask is not rubbing it or making it worse.”
She also recommends over-the-counter spot treatments with a lower percentage of benzoyl peroxide, such as 2.5% to 5%. (Keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide can bleach fabrics like your mask, however, so you may want to save that as a nighttime treatment.)
Skip the makeup. Consider holding off on the concealer or foundation on your lower face, since it’s going to be covered by the mask anyway. Removing makeup removes one more thing that could clog your pores and create more breakouts. But Chen still recommends a light moisturizer a few minutes before you put your mask on in the morning, to help keep your skin’s protective moisture barrier intact — which in turn helps fend off unwanted bacteria.
De-stress and decompress. Stress can lead to more severe acne — not to mention disrupt your healthy diet and sleeping habits. So here are some expert tips to manage your mental health during the pandemic, such as meditation apps, teletherapy sessions or simple self-care practices to help you feel better during these trying times.
See a professional, especially if your mask gives you a rash. Masks can cause rashes such as perioral dermatitis or contact dermatitis. “The first is more related to skin sensitivity, and the other is related to a true allergy to maybe the processing chemicals on the mask itself, or what you use to wash the mask, or even the fabric of the mask,” Chen explained. “A dermatologist will be best suited to diagnose it and recommend treatment.”