How To Avoid Skin Irritation From Face Masks

Face masks unequivocally slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the CDC hasn’t addressed how long we’ll be expected to wear face masks in public, some health experts say we should continue wearing them for the next 18 months, at least.

Because face masks foster a micro-environment of increased humidity, friction and heat, they can cause irritation, especially in people with underlying skin conditions.

Still, “the benefit of viral protection and helping to stop the spread far outweighs the temporary risks to your skin,” Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified dermatologist, told HuffPost. The good news is that tweaks to your existing skin care regimen can do wonders to prevent and treat mask-induced issues.

Cloth masks can harbor bacteria and fungi, and should routinely be washed by machine or by hand using hot water and soap, according to the CDC. Board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield suggested ironing your mask for extra protection against germs.

In addition to practicing good mask hygiene, avoid wearing makeup beneath a face mask to prevent further occlusion of the pores. Do, however, apply sunscreen, as UVA and UVB rays and blue light all can penetrate a mask.

Below, dermatologists offer solutions for common skin irritations caused by face masks, from minor to severe.

Acne

One of the most common face mask irritations is acne, or “maskne.” Breakouts happen when pressure from the mask “traps oil and skin debris in the pores,” Murphy-Rose said.

Treatment: Don’t go nuts with a totally new regimen, as you don’t want to overly dry your skin, which can exacerbate acne.

“Less is more,” Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist, said. “Spot treatments with salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur or acne dots can be worn under a mask to treat new or stubborn blemishes.”

Greenfield recommended washing your face ― anti-acne washes work particularly well ― before putting on your mask and immediately after you take it off.

Camp suggested you follow with an alcohol-free toner that contains salicylic acid for a chemical exfoliation. Skip any type of mechanical exfoliation (like scrubs) as they can damage the skin, especially if you have active acne, and spread infection. Make sure all products you put on your face, like lotion and sunscreen, are noncomedogenic.

Dry Skin

Masks that provide an effective seal are great to combat the spread of the virus, but can do a number on delicate facial skin. “Dry skin can occur if a mask is made of a material that absorbs the skin’s natural oil,” Camp said. “Without it, the skin becomes red, sensitive and rough.”

Dry skin is especially problematic during a viral outbreak, as it can leave you “more vulnerable to irritation and bleeding lesions,” Deanne Mraz Robinson, a board-certified dermatologist, said.

Treatment: Restore the skin’s balance with a barrier cream like Vanicream, Vaniply Ointment or topical ceramide.

Folliculitis

Added pressure to pores can cause folliculitis, a condition that occurs when hair follicles become inflamed and infected.

“Personal protective equipment may cause a perfect environment for growth of bacteria and fungus on the skin, and can lead to bacterial or fungal folliculitis,” Greenfield said. This presents as small red or pus-filled bumps around the hair follicle.

Treatment: Robinson underscored the importance of washing your face before and after wearing a mask. Greenfield also suggested that men leave a small amount of stubble to prevent ingrown hairs, “as long as that does not compromise the functionality of the mask.” The CDC provides a chart on recommended facial hairstyles compatible with PPE.

Try to avoid the temptation to squeeze folliculitis bumps, as you might push the infection deeper into your pore. Instead, treat with a warm washcloth.

Dermatitis

Several types of skin rashes can develop from face masks.

“Allergic contact dermatitis presents with an itchy, red, flaky rash, often limited to the area of contact,” Camp said.

One culprit of allergic contact dermatitis could be a metal nose piece on your face mask that contours to fit your face. “Nickel is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis and may cause allergic contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals,” Camp said. He advised buying a dimethylglyoxime test kit to test your mask for the presence of nickel, especially if you have a nickel allergy.

Another type is irritant dermatitis, in which skin is aggravated by friction and “causes red patches that look raw or glazed in appearance,” Camp said. “They can be painful, swollen or itchy.”

Perioral dermatitis, or inflammation around the mouth, is another concern. This rash might look like acne, presenting as pus-filled bumps.

Treatment: The more sensitive your skin, the more likely you’re going to see an outbreak of dermatitis.

“For this and other skin conditions triggered by wearing a face covering, take breaks from wearing your mask as much as possible, but only when it is safe to do so,” Murphy-Rose said. ”Using a gentle liquid soap or unfragranced laundry detergent may help to avoid irritation.” Depending on severity, consult with a dermatologist for a prescription ointment.

Bruising

Those on the front lines who are wearing masks without a break for hours on end might experience facial bruising, which is “caused when tiny blood vessel walls are damaged,” explained Murphy-Rose.

Treatment: Robinson recommended arnica gel or Alastin’s new INhance Post-Injection Serum to counter bruising. “New bruises can be treated with cold compresses to limit their extent,” Camp added. “Once it’s no longer growing, warm compresses can facilitate the bruise’s disappearance. Eating pineapples, which are rich in an anti-inflammatory enzyme called bromelain, may also reduce swelling.”

Impetigo

A bacterial infection of the skin that presents with “honey-colored crusts,” impetigo, is caused most often by staph and strep.

Treatment: Antibacterial ointments can be applied to open wounds preemptively; sometimes oral antibiotics are necessary.

As you adjust your skin care regimen, here are a couple products that may help avoid irritation from face masks.

Arnica, $10.19

A homeopathic remedy to calm bruising.

Avene Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream, $28

Zinc and copper make this barrier cream an effective healing agent.

CLn Acne Cleanser,$32

Dermatologist-designed cleanser with salicylic acid.

glo Solar Shade SPF 50, $44

Lightweight sunscreen formulated for sensitive skin.

Matthew Milèo Labyrinthe Very Elixir Oud, $45

This antibacterial facial oil infused with oud clarifies without drying.

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