Some of the most striking images of the coronavirus pandemic are of doctors and nurses showing their bruised and irritated faces as a result of wearing a face mask for long hours.
As more people are wearing masks and face coverings to protect themselves and others, some are discovering skin issues as a result. “Face masks, when properly worn and fitted, create a pressurized seal so no air is coming in and ... increases the temperature and humidity around your nose and mouth area," Dr. Orit Markowitz, director of skin cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told TODAY Style.
Those changes in condition and climate can cause issues. “The constant pressure from the mask, heat and sweat break down the structure of the skin, causing irritation, swelling and compromises the skin, which can be expressed as pimples, trauma lines and skin discoloration,” said Markowitz.
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Choosing a mask
Nurses and doctors are wearing a very specific type of medical-grade mask, while the rest of us are wearing different types of face coverings that will impact our skin in different ways. “Surgical and respirator masks can cause physical irritation simply from the rough texture of the mask against the skin, friction and chemical irritation from any irritant substances that they have been treated with — in addition to contact with the microbes that we exhale into the mask, that thus sits on the surface of the skin,” Rachael Pontillo, a licensed aesthetician, makeup artist and author of "Love Your Skin, Love Yourself," told TODAY.
But nonsurgical masks have inherent problems of their own. “Though fabric masks are softer in texture, they still might cause dryness, which leads to irritation, since many fabrics used for them (like cotton blends) absorb our natural oils,” said Pontillo. The residue from laundry detergent and dryer sheets/fabric softeners themselves can also lead to clogged pores and irritation from contact.
Oily or acne-prone skin
Wearing a mask can cause the face to sweat, which can lead to breakouts — especially for people who are already acne-prone. The best way to address the issue is through a spot treatment, according to Cinthia Lomeli, a celebrity esthetician.
“Spot-treating with a zinc cream will help reduce redness and inflammation caused by acne,” Lomeli said.
Dry or sensitive skin
People with sensitive skin may be prone to uncomfortable dryness and redness at the site of the mask, said Pontillo. “This could become an itchy, scaly rash (similar to eczema) due to the absorption and exposure to unfamiliar chemicals and microbes,” said Pontillo.
When you get home, remove your mask as soon as you can, Pontillo suggested. "Wash your face and apply soothing moisturizer (something with aloe vera would be nice)," she said.
People who already have inflammatory or chronic skin conditions, such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, etc., are likely to experience increased flare-ups. “I did a poll on my Instagram stories about this last week and several people responded to me that this was the case for them, particularly with rosacea,” said Pontillo.
If skin becomes swollen from the pressure and tightness of the mask or from wearing the mask for long hours, apply a cold compress. “Make a cold compress by putting a washcloth in icy cold water then wringing it out and laying it on clean skin,” said Lomeli. This can be repeated as many times as needed to reduce the swelling.
If someone experiences bruising from long hours of wearing a mask, they should apply arnica cream or arnica gel. “Arnica helps reduce bruising and can help prevent it as well,” said Lomeli.
How to protect skin
- Wear a clean mask whenever humanly possible. “If a clean face mask is not possible, spray the inside of the mask with alcohol after every use, and let it dry before putting it back on,” said Pontillo.
- Before wearing any mask, apply a rich oil-based moisturizer or balm. “Look for ingredients like shea butter, cocoa butter or jojoba oil to create an extra barrier between your skin and the mask, similar to what you might do for a small child to protect their skin before playing outside in the snow,” said Pontillo.
- Makeup may actually help protect skin, but with an important caveat. “If you have makeup on, this will create an extra barrier, but make sure you remove it as soon as possible because the mask on top of the skin may physically cause the makeup to clog pores,” said Pontillo.
- Make sure your skin care regimen is gentle. Look for milk or lotion cleansers, oil cleansers, aloe-based toners and moisturizers. To avoid any irritants, choose either fragrance-free or products scented with only essential oils.