Hate to be the bearer of bad news buuuut you can blame your face mask for this zitty situation.

By Shannon Bauer
June 15, 2020
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You don't need to be an essential worker wearing protective gear for hours every day to have noticed a skin reaction after wearing a face mask. (But if you are an essential worker, thank you!). This unfortunate side effect is known as mask acne, or 'maskne,' and could show up as pimples, redness, or irritation around your mouth, cheeks, and jawline.

Here, dermatologists weigh in on why maskne happens and what you can do to give your skin some well-deserved relief. (Related: What's Going On with Your Skin During Quarantine?)

What is 'maskne' and why does it happen?

Maskne occurs when sweat, skin oils, and bacteria are trapped on the skin while wearing your mask, says Elizabeth Mullans, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Uptown Dermatology in Houston, Texas. Face masks can cause irritation by either physically rubbing against the skin, which can damage the skin's protective barrier, or by trapping moisture, which can cause acne, she adds.

This type of acne is called acne mechanica, which includes any skin issues due to pressure, friction, rubbing, squeezing, or stretching. It's different from other kinds of acne (like the pimples that show up around your period, for example, which are hormonal) because it occurs only in areas where the mask sits against the skin, says Ife J. Rodney, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology Aesthetics in Fulton, Maryland. "In healthy skin, there are normal amounts of bacteria and yeast that live there, but when pores become clogged because of excess sweat and moisture from the mask, these organisms overgrow, leading to pimples or acne cysts," she explains. (Psst...These 6 Surprising Things Could Also Be Causing Your Acne Flare-Ups)

The warm, humid weather in the summer months can make mask acne especially cruel. The combination of sweat, oil, and moisture from breathing under the mask can clog pores, says Dr. Rodney. In addition, the friction and chafing of the mask in contact with the moist skin can cause the skin to break down. Now, I hate to be the bearer of even more bad news, buuuut cold, dry, winter air won't remove the issue of maskne either; it just occurs differently. The mask rubbing against your drier-than-usual skin can cause the hair follicles to break open, which then allows acne-causing bacteria into the skin, explains Dr. Rodney. But couldn't this breakage happen during other months? Technically, yes, but when there's friction on dry skin, the follicles are more likely to break open (vs. get blocked or clogged like in the summer), resulting in folliculitis, a bacterial infection of the follicles that looks like pimples, says Dr. Rodney. "So essentially, maskne in the summertime would more likely be due to clogged pores, whereas maskne in the winter can be from friction on the dry, delicate skin."

The TL;DR: maskne, like COVID-19, is not necessarily seasonal.

Can you prevent maskne?

Whether you've noticed maskne already or not, incorporating these steps may help to prevent more pimples from forming.

Wash your face regularly. Start by making sure you wash your face twice a day, before and after wearing a mask, says Dr. Mullans. She likes mild cleansers such as Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser (Buy It, $10, target.com) or CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser (Buy It, $15, target.com).

Apply moisturizer. Do so after washing your face to prevent dryness and repair the skin's natural protective barrier, says Dr. Mullans. La Roche Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer (Buy It, $20, target.com) contains key hydrating ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide, and glycerin and is a fave of Dr. Rodney.

Skip your usual makeup. Wearing too many products under the mask can cause a build up on the skin. Forego wearing foundation, or pick non-comedogenic products (ala Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), under the mask to allow your skin to breathe. This is especially true if you work out in your mask, says Dr. Rodney. (Related: What is Hypoallergenic Makeup—and Do You Need It?)

Choose masks wisely. Opt for a soft, cotton mask (if possible) to reduce rubbing and irritation. When exercising with a mask, sweat and friction are inevitable, so the key is to use a clean, dry mask every time. Then remove the mask (after you wash your hands, of course) and wash your face as soon as your workout is done, says Dr. Rodney. (See also: Can I Run Outside During the Coronavirus Pandemic?)

Don't forget to wash your mask after every use. Yes, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but also to remove any acne-causing bacteria and oils from the mask. Use hot water, laundry detergent, and white vinegar, which has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, says Dr. Mullans. Be sure to look for a laundry detergent that is fragrance-free as leftover fragrance residue could also irritate skin. She recommends the gentle formula of Arm & Hammer Sensitive Skin Free and Clear (Buy It, $8, target.com).

The most important thing you can do when it comes to maskne is to pay attention to how your skin is reacting to wearing a mask. Take note if you feel like moisture is building up under your mask or if your skin feels irritated or tender, says Dr. Rodney. "This is your cue to step away from others, remove your mask, pat dry any moisture, and let your skin breathe for a few minutes," she says. Your skin will appreciate the break.

How do you treat maskne?

The good news: maskne is treatable and usually responds well to regular acne medication, says Dr. Rodney.

Exfoliate and hydrate. In addition to your twice-daily washing, the two most important steps in your skincare routine that can help maskne are an exfoliating cleanser and a hydrating moisturizer, says Dr. Rodney. Swap your gentle cleanser for an exfoliating version three nights per week. Neutrogena HydroBoost Gel Exfoliating Cleanser (Buy It, $8, target.com) is the best of both worlds, according to Dr. Rodney, as it contains alpha and beta hydroxy acids to exfoliate and hyaluronic acid, which acts as a moisturizing agent. (See also: The Best Drugstore Acne Products, According to Dermatologists.)

Spot-treat. If you're already experiencing a crop of mask-related pimples, you can use a spot treatment containing salicylic acid, sulfur, zinc, or 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, says Dr. Mullans. Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment (Buy It, $26, nordstrom.com) uses a one-two punch of 10 percent sulfur and zinc to unclog pores and zap pimples. (See also: The Best Acne Spot Treatments to Get Rid of a Pimple Fast.)

Use acne-treating cleansers. If you're #blessed with more acne-prone skin, then it's especially important to incorporate targeted treatments in the battle against maskne. "People with acne-prone skin benefit from cleansers that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide," says Dr. Mullans. Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser (Buy It, $39, sephora.com) contains an encapsulated form of salicylic acid, which means the acne-fighting ingredient still works even after it's washed off.

Consider a retinol. Now is also a good time to hop on the retinol bandwagon, if you haven't already. Retinol speeds cell turnover, which prevents dead skin cells from clogging your pores. Start by using several nights a week with a pea-sized amount and gradually increase the frequency, says Dr. Mullans. She recommends RoC Deep Wrinkle Night Cream (Buy It, $18, target.com). (You could also try one of these retinol products for younger-looking skin.)

Try a stronger OTC treatment. You could also try an over-the-counter product like Differin Acne Treatment Gel (Buy It, $16, cvs.com). This product changes the way the skin cells develop from the inside out and works well for blackheads and clogged pores, explains Dr. Rodney.

Create a barrier. When maskne shows up as skin irritation, you may need a "barrier" product to protect your delicate skin, says Dr. Rodney. A thin layer of Aquaphor Healing Ointment (Buy It, $10, walgreens.com) applied to the irritated skin just before putting on your mask works wonders, she says.

However, if these methods don't work, you may need to speak with your dermatologist about starting a stronger prescription medication.

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