It’s been a few months since face masks became a regular part of our lives. Whether you’ve made your own thanks to the many DIY tutorials available on YouTube, bought a few cute cloth options from Etsy or gone the disposable route, face masks have definitely become a large part of the “new normal” that everyone keeps talking about. Some cities, including Toronto, have even passed a bylaw making masks mandatory in indoor public spaces until at least September.
And while the pros of wearing a mask are hopefully obvious (they save lives, they’re not actually uncomfortable, they mean you don’t have to put on lipstick in the morning and—once more for the people in the back—they save lives), now that we’re wearing them often, many of us are also experiencing a con: mask-induced breakouts and minor skin irritations from prolonged wear, which have become known as “maskne”.
So if you’ve noticed an increase in breakouts and pimples around your mouth, nose and chin area, you’re not alone. We reached out to two experts to learn more about maskne, including how to treat and prevent it.
What is “maskne”?
“Maskne is technically known as ‘acne mechanica,’” says Dr. Monica Li, dermatologist and clinical instructor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia. “It’s acne that arises at sites of friction, pressure, occlusion or rubbing, causing irritation and inflammation of the hair follicles.” Before the days of COVID-19, you might have noticed acne mechanica along your hairline after a hot, sweaty day in a baseball cap, for instance. It’s also often “seen in athletes who wear sporting equipment, such as helmet straps,” says Dr. Li. “Acne mechanica [is also] due to…increased heat and moisture underneath the masked area, which causes pores to clog, adding to acne flare-ups.”
Are hot summer days making it worse?
“The enclosed area of the mask against our skin unfortunately produces a microenvironment of warm moisture,” says dermatologist Dr. Carl Thornfeldt. When combined with summer’s hot, humid weather, “this super-hydrates the stratum corneum (the outer layer of the skin) and dilates the pores and sweat glands.” This increased oil and sweat production clogs our pores, resulting in maskne.
What other types of skin issues can we expect to see?
Because maskne is typically inflammatory in nature and caused by those aforementioned clogged pores, it usually presents itself in the form of whiteheads. However, since it’s 2020 and the worst-case scenario is never really out of the question, it can also “evolve to become pustular and cystic lesions,” says Dr. Li.
If you’re noticing things like rosacea or contact dermatitis, you might have a slight allergy to the fabric or dyes in your face mask, which may be worth a virtual consultation with a dermatologist.
How do you treat maskne?
Turn to the trusty acne-fighting ingredients that you’d use for any other breakout. Ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids are common in over-the-counter and prescription skincare products and can save the day. “These ingredients can be found in both cleansers and moisturizers,” says Dr. Li. “Keep in mind, though, that acne treatments can dry [out] the skin, so it’s about finding the fine balance of tolerating these ingredients [while managing] the ongoing irritation that can come from mask wear.” Finding this balance is unique to your skin type and lifestyle, of course, but incorporating these ingredients into your nighttime skincare regimen a few times a week (but not several days in a row) is usually the safest bet.
“The use of gentle cleansers and moisturizers can help to repair and restore skin-barrier integrity, which may be compromised due to friction from use of facial masks and coverings,” says Dr. Li. Of course, if a breakout is severe or doesn’t go away with treatment, reach out to your dermatologist or family physician to see what’s going on.
Is there any way to prevent maskne while wearing a mask?
So you got your last breakout under control and now you want to prevent it from happening again? Great! The most important step you can take is to practice good hygiene. This means cleansing your face twice a day and washing your mask regularly if it’s made from cloth. You want to make sure your skin is always coming into contact with a fresh, clean mask.
When it comes to your summer skincare routine, opt for lighter textures like gels and lotions rather than thick, oily creams, which can further clog pores. While products containing topical salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or retinoids (such as retinol, tretinoin or retinyl acetate) can help to unclog pores and reduce oiliness of the skin, especially in oilier skin types, it’s important to strike a balance between gently exfoliating the skin to prevent a buildup of skin cells and debris and not further irritating the skin by overusing chemical exfoliants, insists Dr. Li.
Does wearing makeup under a mask have an impact?
“Wearing makeup can further occlude facial skin under a mask and contribute to acne development,” says Dr. Li. Skipping foundation and concealer is an easy way to help prevent breakouts. If you absolutely must wear makeup, “choose mineral-based products rather than oil-based ones, as the latter are more occlusive,” says Dr. Li. “Consider alternatives such as tinted moisturizer or tinted sunscreen,” she adds, rather than a full-coverage foundation.
Here, five products to treat and prevent maskne.
Formulated with salicylic acid, this cleanser not only treats existing breakouts but prevents new ones from forming. Bonus: You can also use it on your body to treat the pesky back and chest acne that can sometimes pop up in the summer months.
Epionce Purifying Wash, US$44, epionce.com.
This dermatologist-recommended cult face wash is soap- and irritant-free and hydrates skin as it gently cleanses. If you’re experiencing irritation or sensitivity, this is always a great option.
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, $12 for 250 ml, beauty.shoppersdrugmart.ca.
Specifically formulated for acne-prone skin, this gel cleanser is oil-free and soap-free and preserves the skin’s natural oils, keeping it hydrated while treating and preventing breakouts thanks to salicylic acid.
Vichy Deep Purifying Cleansing Gel, $20, beauty.shoppersdrugmart.ca.
Not only is this daily moisturizing lotion formulated with acne-fighting salicylic acid, but it also features lactic acid to help with overall skin tone and texture, as well as ceramides, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide (vitamin B3) to help restore and maintain the skin barrier and keep your skin hydrated throughout the day.
CeraVe Salicylic Acid Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin, $17, well.ca.
Need an extra acne-clearing step in your routine? Glossier’s Solution is made with a 10% blend of AHAs, BHAs and PHAs to gently unclog pores and slough off the built-up of dead skin cells that can cause breakouts.
Glossier Solution, $29, glossier.com.