With face masks becoming a routine part of daily life for people around the world because of the coronavirus pandemic, dermatologists have reported that a new affliction has cropped up. It’s being informally referred to as maskne, and it’s a breakout in the area of skin covered by masks.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, mask acne—technically called acne mechanica—is not exactly a new phenomenon. The general public is just now getting an idea of what health care workers, construction workers, and others who regularly don a mask as part of their jobs often grapple with on a daily basis. The reason skin irritation develops isn’t strictly due to the mask itself, but the fact that it traps warm, humid air next to the skin. That environment is perfect for yeast, bacteria, and other flora to thrive, and it can worsen in the hot summer or during exercise. Coupled with the friction of the mask, pimples and breakouts can result.
"We think that wearing these masks, combined with stress from the pandemic, is causing an increased moisture-rich environment for bacteria and organisms to proliferate," Dr. Seemal Desai, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told CNN. That's "causing a breakdown of the skin and flaring of some of these conditions."
Fortunately, you don’t need to tolerate skin discomfort. Using a moisturizer (applied lightly for oily skin, and thicker for sensitive skin) before putting on a mask can help reduce irritation. Sunscreen containing zinc is also helpful, but it’s important not to slather it on the face, as that might increase irritation. And be sure to let any lotion dry before putting your mask on to help ensure a good seal.
To improve your skin and help prevent breakouts, wash your face with a foaming cleanser twice daily. Products with salicylic acid are good if you’re already prone to acne. Dermatologists recommend avoiding harsh products with sodium lauryl sulfate, which can break down the skin barrier. You’ll also want to wash your mask after each use to keep bacteria at bay.
"Good quality, simple skincare does not have to be the $500 fancy product," Desai said. "Just use light, gentle cleansers, non-oily, not harsh."
Whatever your skin care routine, don't set the mask aside or opt for one that's too lightweight. While lighter fabrics may feel more comfortable, they also don’t do a very good job of providing a barrier for viruses. Stick with soft cotton and masks that block light, as that’s a good indicator they’re heavy enough to be useful.