Feel like your face mask is causing acne? You’re probably not imagining it. Not only is it becoming offensively hot and humid this summer, but we’re also wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19—both of which may contribute to acne and other skin issues.
Breakouts, in particular, have become so common that mask acne has been dubbed “maskne” on the internet. While you can’t ditch the mask, there are steps you can take to prevent and treat mask-related acne to enjoy a safe summer with healthy skin.
What causes mask acne?
Acne usually develops when pores get clogged by oil, dead skin cells, makeup, dirt, or bacteria. This can lead to blackheads, whiteheads, or pimples that can vary in size and type, depending on how infected they get.
Adopting a simple skin-care routine—including cleansing, exfoliating, moisturizing, and wearing sunscreen—helps manage acne because it helps with the skin’s natural shedding process. Regular cleansing and exfoliating ensures that all that gunk and dead skin cells are removed rather than clogging your pores. Moisturizing and wearing sunscreen helps ensure the skin’s protective outer layer functions properly.
But wearing a face mask can interfere with that process. Instead of those dead skin cells shedding “throughout the day, they now get clogged in your pores,” Carrie L. Kovarik, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at University of Pennsylvania and a member of the American Association of Dermatology’s (AAD) COVID-19 task force, tells SELF.
Masks also provide the perfect humid environment for bacteria to grow in our skin, which can lead to a breakout, Noelani Gonzalez, M.D., director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai, tells SELF.
How can you treat mask acne?
If you’re dealing with an active mask acne breakout there are ways to treat it—and the methods aren’t so different from the way you’d treat regular acne.
For milder cases, classic over-the-counter acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide (which kills the bacteria associated with acne) and salicylic acid (a chemical exfoliant that helps unclog pores, should be your go-tos, Dr. Gonzalez says. You can try using a benzoyl peroxide-containing spot treatment, as well.
But for more severe acne, meaning it’s inflamed or you’re dealing with deep, cystic pimples, a dermatologist might prescribe other treatments such as anti-inflammatory cortisone creams or retinoid medications, which speed up the skin’s natural cell turnover process.
However, both prescription and over-the-counter acne remedies can be irritating, especially if you have sensitive skin or you’re also dealing with raw, red, inflamed areas of skin. In these cases, a dermatologist may recommend you use acne treatments less frequently or hold off on treating the acne altogether until the raw areas of your skin heals. So the right treatment for you may depend on the exact type of problem you develop and your skin type.
If you’ve tried over-the-counter options without success, then it’s best to check in with a board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Gonzalez says. Many dermatologists are now offering video consultations as well.
What’s the best way to prevent mask acne?
Since we’re going to be wearing masks for a while, managing mask acne isn’t going to be a one-time deal. It will require developing both treatment and ongoing prevention habits to keep your skin clear. And, because mask-related acne doesn’t just affect those who tend to be more acne-prone in general, dermatologists recommend that everyone practice good mask-wearing hygiene.
The first step is to choose a mask that allows your skin (and you) to breathe while also protecting others and yourself from the spread of coronavirus. To accomplish that, the mask should sit snugly but comfortably on your face and should cover both your mouth and nose, SELF explained previously.
“I recommend soft fabrics, something like cotton or silk,” Dr. Gonzalez says. “They are materials that tend to be more gentle and breathable on the skin, versus synthetic materials that tend to be harsher on the skin.” Here are a few cloth masks to check out as well as recommendations for those looking to work out in a mask.
After choosing a well-fitting mask that doesn’t irritate your skin, it’s time to think about what you put under it. Choosing skin care and makeup products that are labeled non-comedogenic or oil-free underneath the mask can help reduce chances of breakouts. But Dr. Gonzalez suggests avoiding makeup under your mask entirely—especially heavy foundations and multiple layers of products, which can clog pores and lead to acne.
Instead, wear a moisturizer with at least SPF 30, Dr. Gonzalez says. Not only will this protect your skin from UV rays, but wearing sunscreen can also help prevent other mask-related skin issues, such as tan lines. And the moisturizing helps reduce friction and chafing.
After a long day of wearing your mask, use a gentle cleanser to wash your face to remove all the accumulated debris and oil, Dr. Kovarik says. But dry skin is another common face mask-related skin issue, so make sure to moisturize immediately after washing your face. Kovarik recommends using a moisturizer with ceramides, which help lock moisture into your skin, and/or hyaluronic acid, which has a hydrating effect.
And if you’re thinking about adding anything new to your daily skin-care routine, Dr. Gonzalez recommends against starting any new harsh treatments for your skin. Adding products like harsh chemical peels can make the skin more sensitive “and should be avoided because that’ll make your skin more prone to breaking out,” she says.
How to wash your mask:
Your face isn’t the only thing you need to wash! In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) recommend washing cloth masks after each use, which helps remove oils and dead skin that collect inside the mask. To do so, use warm water and a gentle detergent that doesn’t irritate the skin.
Look for detergents that are free of added colors and fragrances, which are common skin irritants, Dr. Kovarik says. This will ensure that you’re being gentle on sensitive or irritated skin and will reduce the chances of developing a reaction like contact dermatitis.
Acne isn’t the only mask-related skin issue you might experience.
There are a few other skin issues that may arise during the summer of face masks. For instance, you may need to take extra care with your lips to prevent irritation. Unless you have a cone-shaped mask, “the lips are going to be the first thing your mask is going to touch,” Dr. Kovarik says. She recommends using a lip balm to protect them.
Also, if you have a skin condition like rosacea or eczema, the irritation from face masks may trigger your symptoms. To manage that, definitely keep up the treatment plan that your dermatologist recommended for you, but get in touch with your derm if that plan is no longer enough to manage the flares.