With new cases of COVID-19 reaching record highs in many parts of the U.S., the importance of wearing a mask has never been more clear. Recent information from the CDC has even confirmed that masking up helps protect the wearer and people in close proximity of them.
But masks can come with an annoying side effect for some: irritated skin and clogged pores. Also known as “maskne,” this phenomenon has been reported by dermatologists and patients around the country. Wearing a mask creates excess humidity, along with a buildup of oil and dead skin cells — a perfect recipe for acne breakouts.
Since face coverings are a crucial part of stopping the spread of the virus — and a practice that’s probably going to stick around for quite some time — it’s important to find options that could make masks more comfortable. Sarah Akram, an esthetician based in Alexandria, Virginia, says that maskne is a common complaint among her clients. But there are things people can do to soothe their irritated, pimpled skin.
Is It Maskne?
Maskne tends to affect people who wear masks for prolonged periods of time, especially those who are no stranger to skin problems. “For people who are prone to breakouts or have more sensitive skin, their skin is not getting proper oxygenation to breathe and to heal,” says Akram. “In my practice, I've seen maskne that looks different depending on a person's skin type — sometimes it's a hard bump under the skin, or for others it's a blackhead. But I haven't seen masks cause cystic-type acne or severe breakouts,” she says.
Try Different Mask Fabrics
No matter which variety of maskne you’re suffering from, the last thing you want to do is stop wearing a mask. Instead, try getting a new mask — one that’s made of a different material. That simple switch could potentially bring relief to irritated skin — think redness, bumpiness or itchiness — that often masquerades as maskne.
Trying out different mask fabrics also can help rule out fabric allergies as a cause, Akram says. Textile allergies, which are reactions to natural or synthetic fibers, can also lead to skin irritation in the form of small, red bumps that are often mistaken for acne.
This type of allergy isn’t commonly known, and it tends to be underdiagnosed. But if you already have ultra-sensitive skin, fabric allergies certainly aren't out of the question, Akram says. If you're prone to skin irritation or suspect an allergy, give silk masks a try. Silk is a good choice because allergies to it are rare, and its long and smooth fibers are gentle on the skin.
Akram also recommended another solution you maybe haven't tried: silver. “There are some companies that make masks that have silver woven into the mask, and silver has antibacterial properties,” Akram says. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Antibiotics, silver has long been used as a remedy to control infections. Today, there’s growing interest in adding silver to a wide range of skin products and fabrics to prevent bacterial overgrowth.
Soap and Water
The most important step to preventing breakouts is obvious: Wash your face. “If you're properly cleansing your skin, day and night, and wearing the right type of mask … that can go a long way in preventing maskne,” she says. Akram's own cleansing routine — which might sound a little involved for some — starts with a pre-cleanse oil, is followed by a clay mask, and then is topped off with either a cream or foam cleanser. Although different people may need different things from skincare, a simple soap and water regime can be a good place to start.
Last but not least: Wash your mask, too. “Masks can get really dirty, and people don't realize that a dirty mask can definitely cause breakouts,” she says. “Really make sure you're either washing your mask or have a few you can use in rotation, so you're not wearing the same one every single day.”
In Akram's experience, wearing masks hasn't had an overwhelmingly negative impact on her clients' skin. In fact, there might even be some upsides to covering one’s face. “I see skin all day long,” she says. “There have been some negative side effects, but for the most part I've noticed that a mask can actually have a protective effect.”
Masks, she says, add a layer of protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays, which are known to cause skin cancer and wrinkles. Additionally, masks have helped some of her clients keep their fingers off their face — a habit that can transfer dirt and bacteria to the skin, further clogging pores. “I've noticed that for some of my clients, their skin has actually cleared up, because the mask is there,” she says.