Nikki Porges, registered nurse in our Health at Hand team

Face masks and skin irritation

How to avoid skin irritation, soreness and break-outs when wearing a face mask

29 September 2020

With the use of face coverings, often for prolonged periods of time, becoming part of our everyday routine, it’s no wonder that people are experiencing skin irritation, redness, and a condition that’s been termed ‘Maskne’ – a build-up of skin cells and secretions that contribute to acne formation, caused by wearing a mask.

Here Nikki Porges, a registered nurse in our Health at Hand team explains what’s going on behind your face mask to make you more susceptible to skin irritation and breaks outs, and shares some steps you can take to help prevent them.

What happens to our skin when we wear a mask?

Any fabric rubbing against your skin may lead to friction and irritation. Add to that oil, sweat, dirt, and makeup, which can build up under the fabric, and the skin and its protective barrier are going to be compromised.

This can lead to rashes or even acne breakouts, especially in areas where the mask directly comes into contact with your skin.

As well as the mask itself creating skin irritation, there's also the fact that it’s trapping your own breath and creating a warm, moist environment. When this happens, the skin under a mask can become sweaty and damp from the moisture in your breath, which can also make it more susceptible to breakouts and irritation.

So what can we do to help prevent skin problems occurring?

Tips relating to the mask itself

1. Wear the right mask

To reduce skin problems, look for masks that offer the following:

  • A snug, but comfortable fit with no gaps around the nose, cheeks or chin areas.
  • If you suffer from a skin condition wear a soft, natural, and breathable fabric, such as cotton
  • Fabric on the inside that feels soft if you have sensitive skin
  • Cotton material inside if you have acne or oily skin.

A snug, comfortable fit reduces skin irritation caused by friction if the mask feels too tight or slides around on your face. In addition, you’re more likely to adjust a poorly fitting mask, and every time you touch your mask, you can transfer germs to your mask and your face.

The fabric is also important. Avoid synthetic fabrics, such as nylon, polyester, and rayon. These are more likely to irritate your skin and cause breakouts.

2. Wash your cloth masks - Many health care organisations recommend you wash a cloth mask after each use and only use each mask once before washing. Washing it also removes oils and skin cells that collect inside the mask, which could lead to skin problems.

You can wash a cloth mask in a washing machine or by hand. Both ways remove germs and other particles. Just be sure to:

  • Follow the washing instructions on each mask
  • Wash the masks at the hottest temperature recommended by the manufacturer
  • Use a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic laundry detergent
  • After washing your mask, check its shape. If a mask no longer fits snugly (and comfortably), it's less protective.

General skin care tips

  • Try to use only hypoallergenic skin care products for your face when wearing face masks. This will ensure that allergens and irritants don't lead to redness and a rash as the ingredients warm and go into solution with your exhaled moist air that is trapped under your mask.
  • Use ultra-gentle skin cleansers and moisturisers where possible, as harsh facial cleansers can disrupt the outer skin layer, leading to dryness and inflammation. This in turn makes it more likely that you'll develop irritation from a mask sitting on your face.
  • Wash your face each morning and evening with a gentle cleanser. If you regularly use more astringent facewash with ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinoids, for oily or acne-prone skin, you may want to switch to a gentler cleanser as soon as you notice any irritation. Try to cleanse or use some freshening toner wipes over your skin as soon as you can after taking your mask off in order to remove dirt, oil and sweat that has become trapped on the skin while your mask was on. This can help to reduce breakouts as well as irritation.
  • After washing or cleansing every morning and evening make sure to apply moisturiser, taking special care in areas if the mask has been rubbing.
  • Apply a richer moisturiser at night to help replenish skin cells and repair damage as you sleep. If you typically apply anti-aging serums or other products at night as well, you may want to hold off on using these while wearing masks regularly.
  • During the daytime try to moisturise your skin at intervals with particular attention to areas where the mask may rub or sit. For example, nose, cheeks, chin, ears and, if you are wearing an N95 type mask, the jaw line. Make sure your moisturiser isn’t applied too thickly and is absorbed by the skin to prevent a build-up of oil and sweat developing between the cream and your skin barrier.
  • You may also find it helpful to reduce or stop wearing make up under the mask.
  • If you’re wearing a mask for extended periods of time, don’t forget to take a 15 minute mask break at least every four hours to give your skin a chance to breathe and recover. Safe places to do this are outside where you can maintain social distancing and also inside your own home, away from other people that you may be caring for.
  • Cleanse your face as soon as you take off your mask. If you're breaking out, focus on spot treatments and acne cleansers, and if you're developing a rash or dryness, look for healing, soothing products. If you're prone to irritation, try using a thicker barrier cream before wearing your mask to prevent rubbing, and focus on calming balms and oils instead of powerful active ingredients in your skin-care products.
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