5 Ways To Treat The Breakouts Caused By Wearing Masks

While masks and face coverings may be part of our ‘new normal’ in wake of COVID-19, breakouts and skin irritation do not have to be.
Written by Meg Storm
(26)Is this article helpful?6 min read
5 Ways To Treat The Breakouts Caused By Wearing MasksMika Baumeister/Unsplash

As many cities and states reopen in the aftermath of stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, masks are becoming an essential part of everyday life in this new normal. But, with temperatures rising and people spending more time in public, many are noticing breakouts and skin irritation as a result of wearing a face covering.

Dubbed ‘maskne,’ frontline workers and healthcare professionals have long dealt with the skin-sensitizing impacts of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). For those of us not used to walking around or working with something on our face, the pesky pimples and recurring redness are an unwelcome surprise. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to clarify and protect your complexion from mask-related skin conditions, and we’ve asked the experts to break them down.

Why Masks Cause Breakouts

While many people associate acne with hormones and other internal factors, the breakouts caused by wearing a mask or face covering have a different origin. As such, people who are not used to dealing with acne may still find their skin irritated (though those most susceptible to reactive skin will likely bear the brunt).

“Wearing a mask or other protective gear around your face can lead to a type of acne called acne mechanica,” says Renée Rouleau, a celebrity aesthetician and founder of Renée Rouleau Skincare. “When something is constantly rubbing up against your skin, the combination of friction, heat, and pressure can be a trigger for breakouts.”

Not only do masks irritate the skin by rubbing on it, they also create a moist environment for breakouts to thrive. “Direct physical friction and pressure from the mask inflames and irritates skin,” explains Julie Russak, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Russak Dermatology in New York City. “Then, when breathing into the mask, you are adding moisture into the mix. The air that we breathe out contains bacterial yeast populations that are mostly found inside the mouth that are now getting deposited onto the already inflamed and irritated skin, creating breakouts.”

Other Skin Conditions Caused By Masks

The same friction responsible for acne mechanica is also the culprit behind pretty much all of the irritation caused by protective face coverings. Red, bumpy, rashy skin is a common precursor to acne mechanica, and these reactions can cause additional skin concerns down the line. “All of these are signs of inflammation, which can wake up your skin’s pigment cells and cause lingering pigmentation long after the erythema, or redness, has subsided,” Rouleau explains.

Additionally, face coverings can flare up rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema. “[It exacerbates] rosacea because it increases inflammation on the skin,” Dr. Russak says. “Psoriasis tends to flare up at areas of trauma, such as pressure from the mask. And eczema can flare up due to the moisture under the mask.”

How to Treat & Prevent Mask-Related Breakouts

Multitaksers, rejoice! Treating and preventing maskne actually goes hand in hand. It all starts with keeping the skin clean and the protective barrier as healthy as possible. “When an object is consistently being rubbed across your skin, it can disrupt your protective moisture barrier and create tiny cracks,” Rouleau says. The six steps below should help combat and prevent irritation:

1. Tone & Treat

If you’re dealing with maskne, an antibacterial toner will be your best friend. Rouleau suggests wiping a clarifying formula, like her Rapid Response Detox Toner, over the affected area once or twice a day. Additionally, products with salicylic acid, lactic acid, tea tree oil, and/or manuka leaf extract can further clear up the complexion. “Salicylic acid is unique in that it has the ability to cut through oil and really get into your pore lining,” Rouleau shares, adding that she would use a serum with the beta hydroxy acid (BHA), such as her Pore + Wrinkle Perfection Serum, two to three nights a week.

For those experiencing redness or rashes that haven’t turned into breakouts, she recommends swapping the antibacterial toner for a hydrating, serum-infused one. “These toners are more of an ‘essence’ because they pamper and soothe thirsty skin cells by delivering moisture deep into the skin,” she explains. “Apply a little moisturizer on top once you’re finished to seal everything in.” Speaking of moisturizer…

2. Moisturize Before Masking

To protect the skin from irritation, Dr. Russak recommends using a light, non-oil based moisturizer before putting on your mask. This helps to create a protective barrier that can combat the friction caused by the face covering. For daytime, she likes the SkinCeuticals MetaCell B3 (which contains glycerin and niacinamide) and SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum (which also helps with pigment control during the summer months).

3. Keep Makeup Simple

Remember the no-makeup makeup trend of recent years? Well, in this case, skipping makeup all together may be your best bet. At the very least, scale down your routine. “Don’t use heavy makeup under the mask to prevent occlusion,” Dr. Russak says. But this pare down is not an excuse to skimp on sunscreen. “Regardless of if you work indoors, SPF is necessary,” Rouleau says. “But if you’re struggling to keep your skin clear, you may want to opt for a mineral sunscreen powder instead of a traditional lotion- or cream-based sunscreen.” Our pick? The Supergoop! Invincible Setting Powder SPF 45.

3. Cleanse & Exfoliate

Washing your face right after you take your mask off (or as soon after as you can) is also key for treatment and prevention. While it’s important to exfoliate the skin to prevent a buildup of dead skin cells and other acne-causing bacteria, it’s imperative that the products used do not compromise the skin barrier. To achieve that balance, Dr. Russak advises cleansing with a creamy (not foaming!) face wash and incorporating a gentle alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)-based exfoliant two to three times a week. The cleanser “prevents stripping skin from its natural protective barrier,” while the chemical exfoliator “removes dead cells, decreases build up, and encourages skin regeneration,” she says. Her picks? The Revision Papaya Enzyme Cleanser and SkinCeuticals Glycolic Renewal Cleanser.

4. Try a Different Kind of Mask

In the comfort of your own home, you can skip the protective face mask in favor of a skincare one. If you are dealing with active breakouts, Rouleau recommends using an antimicrobial mask, like her Rapid Response Detox Masque, to soothe and clarify. If preventing irritation is the goal, she prefers a cooling, gel-based formula, such as the Bio Calm Repair Masque. “Gel masks tend to be the most soothing thanks to their naturally cooler temperatures,” she notes.

5. Moisturize Some More

The overnight hours offer an ideal time to further heal and fortify the complexion. Since the skin and body naturally repair themselves at night, applying P.M. skincare that complements these processes can boost the benefits. “Use a calming moisturizer on the skin at night to repair and regenerate,” Dr. Russak says, adding that SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore is one of her favorites.

Similarly, Rouleau says reparative ingredients — like shea butter, tocopherol, and sunflower oil — are a must. “To focus on rebuilding and protecting your skin’s protective moisture barrier, use a healing moisturizer,” she says. “If you want to calm and heal inflamed skin but worry about heavy moisturizers breaking you out, I recommend my Skin Recovery Lotion.”

The Takeaway

While masks and face coverings may be part of our ‘new normal’ in wake of COVID-19, breakouts and skin irritation do not have to be. Proactively protecting your complexion from the friction caused by masks can help ward-off maskne, as can a gentle-yet-effective exfoliating routine. It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: be sure to regularly wash your face masks and coverings. “Not only is this the best practice for good hygiene, but it will also prevent oil and dirt from being reintroduced to the skin,” Rouleau says.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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MEG STORMis the editorial & content director at AEDIT.

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