How to avoid skin irritation from wearing a protective face mask

In addition to the mask itself creating skin irritation, there’s the fact that you’re trapping your own breath and creating a warm, moist environment. “Skin under a mask can get ‘sweaty’ and damp from the moisture in your breath,” says Sofie Pavitt, an aesthetician in New York. “This can make it susceptible to breakouts and irritation.”

As we enter this new normal, it means adjusting to changes in our daily routine, from working from home to meticulously planning our weekly trips to buy groceries. For some us us, this means also deciding to wear a face mask whenever you’re out in public, following Sadiq Khan’s recommendation in order to slow the spread of Coronavirus.

No matter if you’re a health care worker wearing a medical mask on the front lines, or you’re wearing a fabric face covering out on a daily sanity walk, you’ll soon discover that in addition to keeping you safe, your face mask may be causing some less than desirable side effects when it comes to your skin.

“Any fabric rubbing against your skin may lead to friction and irritation,” says Dr Joshua Zeichner director of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “Plus, oil, sweat, dirt, and makeup can build up under the fabric. This can lead to rashes or even acne breakouts, especially in areas where the mask directly comes in contact with your skin.” In more serious cases, like those of medical workers wearing PPE masks for hours, your skin may start to break down and serious bruising can take place due to the constant rubbing.

While a little acne is certainly worth it to keep yourself (and others) safe, there are ways to keep your skin protected too. Read on for the best ways to treat and prevent skin irritation from face masks.

Consider the fabric of your mask

Whether you DIY a mask with a bandana or purchase one from a small retailer, the fabric you’re using can make a big difference. Across the board, experts recommend avoiding synthetic materials and picking something soft and natural like cotton. Keep in mind, though, that breathable fabrics are more likely to filter air in. Dermatologist Dr Shari Marchbein recommends layering tightly woven cotton to keep you protected.

Give your makeup some time off

If you can, it’s a good idea to let your skin breathe when wearing a mask out and about. In addition to the fact that no one is paying attention to your skin right now, “the mask is likely to remove makeup as it rubs against your skin,” says Marchbein. “That makeup can cause further occlusion of oil glands and pores potentially making breakouts worse.” Ditch your foundation and focus on a cool eyeshadow if you still want to play with makeup.

While you might be tempted to attack your chin area with heavy-duty products to keep it clear, now is the time to really baby your skin to keep it protected. “It’s important to use ultra gentle skin cleansers and moisturisers,” says Zeichner. “Harsh facial cleansers can disrupt the outer skin layer, leading to dryness and inflammation. This makes it more likely that you’ll develop irritation from a mask sitting on your face.” It’s best to stick to gentle, simple formulas such as Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, £9.50, Boots, Hydra-Boost Sensitive Day Cream, £42, Elemis or Vaseline, £29.99, Boots for super damaged skin.

While Marchbein calls retinol “the backbone of any good anti-ageing and acne skin care routine,” she recommends taking a break from it for now, especially if you’re wearing an N95 mask since it can make skin more easily irritated. She says other serums are fine, and be sure to wear at least SPF30 on areas where your face is exposed.

If you’re experiencing breakouts already, Pavitt recommends adding salicylic acid to your routine. “Using a cleanser that contains salicylic acid is great because it’s a very gentle way to incorporate the ingredient – plus, it can be washed off,” she says. “Sal acid cleans deep inside your pores to reduce excessive oils and sebum.” Try Super Facialist Salicylic Acid Purifying Cleansing Wash, £9, Boots.

Cleanse your face as soon as you take off your mask

In addition to a moist environment, the friction of the mask itself can cause breakouts. Aesthetician Renée Rouleau describes your pores as pipes – whenever you wear a mask, the pressure causes the “pipes” to get bent out of shape, which can cause oil blockage and lead to breakouts. In an ideal world, you would come home, take off your mask, wash your hands, and then wash your face to prevent that oil blockage. But if you can’t for whatever reason, Rouleau recommends swiping an anti-bacterial toner to quickly clean your face and kill off any acne-causing bacteria every time you remove your mask.

Ease rubbing with a barrier cream

Keep an extra close eye on your skin since it might need special care after using a mask. If you’re breaking out, focus on spot treatments and acne cleansers, and if you’re developing a rash or dryness, looking for healing, soothing products. If you’re prone to irritation, Pavitt recommends using a thick barrier cream like Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream, £25,53, Amazon before wearing your mask to prevent rubbing. She also says to focus on calming balms and oils instead of powerful actives.

If you’re a healthcare worker wearing a N95 mask for days on end, your skin can be particularly damaged thanks to a tight-fitting mask. “This can result in cuts or abrasions on your skin, redness, bruising – especially under your eyes and around your nose where the skin is thinner – irritation, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, meaning darkening of the skin in those areas,” says Marchbein. “The goal is to decrease the tension and friction, and lubricating your skin with occlusive ointments and dressings can do just that.” She recommends using Aquaphor Healing Ointment, £6.88, iHerb, CeraVe Healing Ointment, £29.99, Amazon, or Vaseline, £29.99, Boots to not only help heal wounds, but to also use as a barrier before putting on your mask. Marchbein also suggests placing extra thin hydrocolloid bandages in high-impact areas like your nose and cheeks to relive some pressure.

If you’re worried about bruising, arnica gel can help minimise the effects, and over the counter 1% hydrocortisone cream can be used for any rashes or itching. Zeichner also recommends a bacitracin ointment to prevent infection on any open wounds. And if your skin isn’t improving after trying these remedies for a few days? Consider booking a telemedicine visit with a dermatologist to talk through your routine.

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