"Maskne" Is a Thing — Here's How to Fight Face Mask Breakouts
As if stress breakouts weren't bad enough.
While it was primarily healthcare workers experiencing mask-induced breakouts and skin irritation at the beginning of the pandemic, now that masks are becoming a part of everyday life for the rest of us, dermatologists are being bombarded with (virtual) appointments for this skin woe, explains New York City-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D. And unfortunately, the warm weather we've all been waiting for is only making matters worse.
So you're not alone in your skincare struggles... but how do you treat these breakouts, and prevent them from happening in the first place? Here, derms break down everything you need to know about maskne.
What exactly is 'maske' — and what causes it?
As the name suggests, "maskne" is acne brought on by wearing a face mask — and its been on derms' radar long before COVID-19. “We saw similar skin concerns with mask use during the SARS crisis years ago," says New York City dermatologist Michelle Henry, M.D.
"The clinical term for maskne is acne mechanic and it is caused by friction, rubbing, and occlusion of the skin by outside forces,” she explains. (You may have even experienced this from wearing sunglasses in the sweaty summer months.)
"Any friction and irritation can push bacteria into the skin, creating micro-tears — which allow easier entry for bacteria and dirt — and can lead to inflammation which then drives the acne process," explains dermatologist Tiffany J. Libby, M.D, assistant professor of dermatology at Brown University.
You'll notice these breakouts where the mask sits — the bridge of the nose, chin, and cheeks — and they make take the form of whiteheads, blackheads (if oxidized by the air), or even abrasions and cysts, Dr. Engelman says. “Masks can also trigger rosacea, perioral dermatitis, irritant dermatitis, contact dermatitis, and skin breakdown,” Dr. Henry adds.
While masks already trap humidity, dirt, oil, and sweat on a good day, our chin, mouth, and nose area are even more susceptible to breakouts now that summer is here. “Maskne is absolutely worse during the summer months as the increased oil production in our pores creates the ideal environment for cysts,” Dr. Henry says.
How can you prevent and treat maskne?
While any form of acne is frustrating, maskne can be particularly pesky due to the combination of factors that contribute to it — and the fact that you can't simply eliminate the 'outside force' causing it. (Seriously, keep wearing your mask!) Luckily, you can make a few adjustments to your skincare routine to combat mask breakouts, soothe irritation, and stop the vicious maskne cycle.
Wash your face before and after wearing a face mask.
Hopefully, you're taking the time to diligently wash your hands throughout the day — and avoiding touching your face as much as possible. But you should also be sure to wash your face with a gentle cleanser before applying a mask to prevent trapping bacteria under the mask and pushing it further into your skin, Dr. Engelman says.
"I recommend starting with a benzoyl peroxide cleanser once a day to target bacteria and remove excess oil," Dr. Libby says. "I love Differin Daily Deep Cleanser which has 5% benzoyl peroxide, which is just as effective as [higher concentrations], and gentler."
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For healthcare workers on the frontline wearing the tightest-fitting masks for many hours of the day, a combination of "maskne" and eczema (which can occur in the forms of irritant or allergic contact dermatitis) is common, and can manifest as dry, itchy skin, Dr. Libby says. If you are experiencing both of these conditions, it's important to immediately cleanse your skin after removing your mask and to use a cleanser that won't over-dry or stripping your skin, which can worsen irritation.
Both derms recommend Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, which can also be used without water. If you have irritated or sensitive skin, gently swipe a cotton round with the cleanser over your skin, Dr. Libby suggests.
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Use a chemical exfoliant.
While benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid spot treatments can help target whiteheads once they are formed, chemical exfoliants, which dissolve dead cells on the skin's surface, are key for preventing mask breakouts from forming in the first place, Dr. Engelman says.
She suggests opting for one with salicylic acid, like Humane Clarifying Toner, once per week to unclog pores, without irritating sensitive skin. (It'll also leave skin softer and brighter in the process.)
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Apply a skin-soothing moisturizer.
After cleansing, be sure to add moisture back into the skin — but skip your heavy winter creams. "I suggest a gentle, fragrance-free and non-comedogenic moisturizer like Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion, which is formulated with hyaluronic acid to help hydrate, soothe, and restore the skin protective barrier," Dr. Libby says.
"I recommend moisturizers with ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid to help strengthen and reinforce the skin barrier," Dr. Henry adds.
For healthcare workers or those experiencing extra dryness and eczema, applying an OTC cortizone cream on a short-term basis is helpful in alleviating skin irritation and calming down inflammation, Dr. Libby says.
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Ditch your foundation.
Dr. Engelman suggests ditching heavy foundations as we head into warmer months, which will only further trap bacteria in your pores under your mask — the perfect storm for acne.
Instead, opt for a tinted moisturizer, or tinted sunscreen for breakout-friendly SPF protection, like IT Cosmetics Your Skin But Better CC+ Cream SPF 40. More on that below...
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But don't forget the SPF.
If you're forgoing makeup altogether, you still need to apply sunscreen. "Even though our faces will be mostly covered by masks, other areas are still exposed, so it's best to just apply an even layer of SPF as the finishing step to your morning routine," Dr. Libby says. (And FYI, you need to wear sunscreen indoors, too).
Look for non-comedogenic and oil-free options as they work to decrease excess oil that can clog pores and lead to acne. "I like mineral options, as zinc oxide is an anti-irritant and has antimicrobial properties, both which are suitable for acne-prone and sensitive skin types," she adds.
Or, swap your moisturizer for one with SPF. Dr. Henry suggests Olay Regenerist Whip SPF 25. "It's a great non-comedogenic option for your daily moisturizer with sunscreen that won’t clog your pores.”
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Add a soothing, occlusive balm.
If you're already dealing with maskne, creating a physical barrier to protect this chapped skin is key. Layer on a hydrating and occlusive balm, like Glo Skin Beauty Barrier Balm, along the area where the masks sits right before you put it on, Dr. Engelman says. This will not only soothe parched skin, but it will prevent bacteria from spreading, she adds.
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Or, opt for pimple patches.
Another physical barrier Dr. Libby suggests is silicone tape or Duoderm ($24; amazon.com), again applied to skin where the mask contacts your face and applies the most friction. "Acne patches, like COSRX, are another dual-functioning solution as they apply acne medication to individual lesions throughout the day, while also serving as a physical barrier to the mask," she says.
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And don't forget to wash your fabric mask every time you wear it.
If you're wearing a fabric face mask, you should be washing it after every. single. time. you wear it. This is important for your health: You don't know what bacteria the mask has come in contact with and don't want germs making their way into your nose or mouth. But it's also helpful for keeping breakouts at bay.
Bottom line: "Masks, while important for our safety, can trap in humidity, dirt, oil, and sweat and — if you're not cleaning them properly or reusing them for prolonged periods of time — this can further exacerbate these symptoms," Dr. Libby says.
You should also be mindful of the types of detergent you're using — especially if you already have sensitive skin.
"I recommend gentle detergents like Tide Free & Gentle, which does not contain dyes and fragrances that cause skin irritation and allergies," says dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner. "This particular detergent is strong enough to remove soiling and contamination from fabrics, but is gentle enough for the skin that it is recognized by the National Eczema Association and National Psoriasis Foundation."
Aside from regular washing, it's also a smart idea to make or buy a few masks (ideally in a softer fabric, like a silk blend, to reduce friction) so you can easily switch them out and wash them in between uses, Dr. Engelman says. Another option? A mask with the aforementioned zinc oxide embedded in the fabric may be helpful, Dr. Henry adds. "Zinc is anti-inflammatory and soothing to the skin. It will contribute to protecting the skin barrier."