Wearing a face mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but for some folks, it’s also led to an unfortunate side effect: breakouts.
From annoying zits to unwanted blemishes on the cheeks and lower jawline, face mask-induced acne (or maskne) can be frustrating to deal with, especially for those who have to wear their masks for longer periods of time, like frontline workers and other healthcare professionals.
If you’re someone who is currently struggling with it, experts say you aren’t the only one. “[Maskne] was rampant during the height of the pandemic,” Dr. Peter Young, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director for Facet, tells Mental Floss.
And now, with flu season in full swing and COVID cases on the rise, those who want to avoid both are likely to start masking up again. With that in mind, we spoke to a couple of experts about what maskne really is, how it develops, and most importantly, how to manage it if you’re on the receiving end of a gnarly breakout.
What Causes Maskne?
According to Dr. Sandra Lee, a.k.a. Dr. Pimple Popper, maskne is a “clever term for what dermatologists call acne mechanica.” Caused by a combination of friction, irritation, and increased humidity under a well-sealed face mask, it can lead to “more persistent oil and debris remaining on the skin,” she says.
In short, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for acne. But whereas regular acne typically crops up along the T-Zone (the central part of the face, including the forehead, nose, and chin), Young points out that maskne is distinctive because it appears on areas of the skin that are usually covered by masks, such as the cheeks and lower jawline.
Beyond where it appears, experts claim that there really aren’t any other tell-tale signs that differentiate maskne from the common breakout. “The pimples don’t appear any different,” Lee says.
It could be more likely to flare-up during certain seasons, however, or if you’re living in areas where high temperatures are the norm. “Maskne gets worse in the summer months due to increased sweating and humidity under the mask,” Young says, and according to Lee, the added heat can make dirt and oil more likely to “stick to the skin.” Facial sunscreens might exacerbate the problem even more, she notes, as some “act to occlude the skin, increasing the clogging of pores, leading to more potential for [an] acne breakout.”
Outside of just being annoying, maskne may create some bigger problems, too. “People who have a tendency to develop cystic acne under their mask are at risk of long-term scarring,” Young says. According to Lee, the type of treatment she might prescribe to patients coping with the condition depends on the type of acne they might have—specifically, whether it’s inflammatory (meaning papules or pustules are present); it’s comedonal (producing blackheads and whiteheads); or results in cysts and nodules, which are more severe signs of acne.
You may want to consult with a dermatologist or other trusted healthcare provider for more specialized care and tips if you’re repeatedly getting breakouts in the same areas.
How to Prevent Maskne
Want to avoid the issue altogether? Don’t ditch the mask. Instead, experts say you may just want to adjust how long you’re wearing it—and how you take care of your skin afterward.
“Take little breaks from your mask when you can, like when you are traveling alone in your car, or just walking in the parking lot with no one in close proximity,” Lee says. According to Young, changing your mask out frequently may also help to reduce friction and irritation, particularly after strenuous activities like exercising.
Because N95 and KN95 masks have a special static charge that helps to trap virus particles, Smithsonian reports that they shouldn’t be tossed in the laundry. However, they can be reused, so if you’re wearing one, you may want to consider taking a “sanitation break” by switching it out with a new one, then putting the old mask in a brown paper bag or letting it hang in a cool, dry place for between five to seven days before reuse.
Once you’re back at home, it’s also a good idea to wash your face, but be gentle (and try to avoid picking at any pimples). “While you may feel tempted to aggressively clean your face after removing the mask, especially if you’re breaking out, this can actually make the maskne worse by irritating your skin,” Young says. You should also think twice before exfoliating with a washcloth or loofah: Scrubbing with abrasive textures might exacerbate the problem, he says.
Another thing to be vigilant about is the products you’re putting on your skin—and how you’re using them. “You should avoid applying thick layers of moisturizer or sunscreen, [because] this can cause breakouts with or without a mask,” Young says.
The 7 Best Products to Buy Now if You Have Maskne, According to Experts
1. The Best Facial Cleanser: SLMD Salicylic Acid Cleanser; $25
If you’ve got maskne, chances are you’re washing your face more often. When it comes to handling clogged pores, Lee is a “big fan” of cleansers that contain beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), which are known to penetrate deep into the skin and can be ideal for those looking to balance excess sebum. One of the most common types of BHAs is salicylic acid, which is derived from willow bark and can be great for everything from exfoliating and unclogging pores to reducing inflammation and conquering stubborn whiteheads and blackheads.
For maskne-related issues, Lee recommends a cleanser from her SLMD skincare line, because it’s formulated with salicylic acid. However, with any type of cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, Young urges folks to “only apply these when you’re not planning to wear a mask for several hours,” so you give your skin a chance to breathe a bit after.
2. The Best Skin Cleanser for Sensitive Skin: Cetaphil Hydrating Gentle Skin Cleanser; $12
If you have extra-sensitive skin and want a cleanser that will be especially hydrating, you can find solid options right at the drugstore (or on Amazon for under $15), like this gentle cleanser from Cetaphil that Young recommends. Formulated with essential B5 and B3 vitamins, this hydrating blend can help you balance your skin’s pH levels. It’s also completely hypoallergenic, free of parabens, sulfates, and fragrances, and it’s designed to restore your skin’s natural moisture barrier, making it a nice, soothing treat for troubled complexions.
Buy it: Amazon
3. The Best Facial Wipes: Neutrogena Ultra-Soft Makeup Remover Towelettes; $10
After a long day behind a mask, a cooling facial wipe can provide some welcome relief and help to dissolve dirt, oil, makeup, sweat, and other impurities that may be irritating your skin. Young thinks these wipes from Neutrogena are “good for people with maskne” as they’re gentle on skin and completely alcohol-free. Another reason to grab a stack is that they’re compostable, made from plant-based fibers, and don’t have any traces of parabens, sulfates, phthalates, soaps, or dyes.
Buy it: Amazon
4. The Best Chemical Sunscreen for Acne-Prone Skin: SLMD Dual Defender; $30
For anyone with acne-related issues, finding a good sunscreen can be tough. Generally speaking, that’s because sunscreens tend to be very occlusive, meaning they create a thick, protective layer over the skin that’s great if you’re trying to lock in moisture or protect against friction and external irritants like pollen. However, if you have oil-prone skin, that heavy consistency could actually clog your pores up like nobody’s business.
If that’s the problem you’re always running into with sunscreen, Lee recommends looking for blends that are non-comedogenic, like the SLMD Dual Defender from her skincare line. “I love this product because people with [acne-prone] skin don’t have to choose between their acne regimen and wearing sunscreen,” she adds. Formulated with avobenzone, this chemical sunscreen offers broad spectrum protection against harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 30.
Buy it: SLMD
5. The Best Mineral Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin: CeraVe 100% Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30; $15
Chemical sunscreens absorb ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and often don’t leave behind any annoying white residue, which can be a good thing for some. However, if you have very sensitive skin, you might want to opt for a mineral (also known as physical) sunscreen instead, as they’re usually considered less irritating on skin and “work like a shield” to deflect UV rays, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Young recommends mineral facial sunscreens that are formulated with either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients. “The zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in mineral sunscreens act as a barrier against friction and irritation from the mask, and can help prevent and improve maskne,” he adds. This one from CeraVe fits the bill. It’s formulated with both and includes three essential ceramides that can help lock in moisture and reverse the effects of sun damage on skin.
Buy it: Amazon
6. The Best Daily Moisturizer: Cetaphil Gentle Clear Mattifying Acne Moisturizer; $10
You don’t want to skimp on your moisturizing routine just because you’re having a bad breakout. For a daily cream that can replenish your complexion and reduce acne-related inflammation, consider this blend from Cetaphil. Young likes the brand and recommends their facial creams; this one in particular is formulated with acne-prone skin in mind. It contains salicylic acid that works to prevent fresh breakouts, plus it will keep your face feeling nicely hydrated.
Buy it: Amazon
7. The Best Evening Moisturizer: The Crème Shop Rose Hip Oil Gelée Mask Overnight Treatment; $15
Using sunscreen and moisturizers can be good for your skin during the day, but according to Lee, it’s important not to forget about moisturizing at night. “This is when our skin is more susceptible to drying, especially if you’re using benzoyl peroxide or retinoids,” she says. For a lightweight blend that will calm redness-prone skin, she recommends this gelée mask overnight treatment from The Crème Shop. It’s enriched with rosehip oil, which is packed with vitamins A, C, and E, and is well-known in the beauty world for its anti-inflammatory properties, among many other benefits.
Buy it: Walmart