Whether you're on the clear or spotty end, here's the "why" behind your quarantine skin changes.

By Sara Spruch-Feiner
June 04, 2020
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Most people's lives changed dramatically in mid-March, as many states found themselves under government-mandated stay-at-home orders. Being home 24/7, working from home, and generally, you know, living under the stress of a global pandemic not only turned most day-to-day lives upside down, but also spiked our stress levels tremendously (and understandably)—even more so for those working on the frontlines.

So how are these newfound, mostly-indoors lives impacting our skin? How about when you're in a face mask for 12 hours straight? Turns out, the answer varies quite a bit. Some are seeing the clearest skin of their lives while others are experiencing massive upticks in breakouts. Here, top dermatologists explore the different ways your skin may have been impacted by quarantine. (See: 13 Brands Who Are Making Cloth Face Masks Right Now)

If Your Skin Is... Freaking Out

There are a number of possible explanations for breakouts, dryness, and other skin issues in quarantine—and how to deal with them.

Stress

The link between stress and acne is well-established. "Stress can cause skin issues as well as exacerbate existing skin issues," says Cambridge-based board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, M.D. "Stress causes an increase in cortisol [a stress hormone] and androgenic hormones." These both stimulate the overproduction of sebum (oil) and the growth of the sebaceous glands (which produce that oil). "This, plus the increased inflammation they can yield often are behind an acne flare-up in stressful times," she explains.

Of course, it's easier said than done, but trying to simply manage your stress levels is one of the best things you can do. "The more sleep you can get, the more deep breathing you can do, and time away from a stressful situation you can get—basically, using anxiety-reduction strategies—will help your skin," says Chicago-based board-certified dermatologist, Rachel Pritzker, M.D. "It takes effort to change your lifestyle as opposed to just throwing some cream on it or taking a pill to make it go away." (See: How to Cope with COVID-19 Stress When You Can't Stay Home)

Changes In Diet

It's not surprising that comfort food and less-than-healthy snacks have been a source of solace during these crazy times. "Diet is important because food provides nutrients we need to fight and kill bad bacteria," explains New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, Dendy Engelman, M.D. "There's a real connection between skin health and the health of your gut," she says. "If you have an unhealthy, unbalanced gut environment, toxins can be released into the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body," which can, in turn, lead to breakouts.

'Maskne'

Perhaps you've already encountered this extremely-timely portmanteau; 'maskne' (masks acne), is a new catch-all phrase to refer to the ways wearing face masks impacts your skin. Notably, frontline workers wearing tightly secured masks for hours at a time are prone to suffer from acne mechanica, a form of acne caused by a "combination of friction, sweat, and heat," says Dr. Engelman.

For those of us wearing fabric masks, to keep any other potential irritants or pore-clogging substances at bay, it's important to wash them immediately after use, and wash your face before applying the mask and taking it off. Also: try a fragrance and irritant-free detergent. (See: Medical Workers Are Speaking Out About Skin Breakdown Caused By Tight-Fitting Face Masks)

Changes In Sleep Habits

The change in daily routine has wreaked havoc on many peoples' sleep schedules. If you're getting less sleep than usual, your skin is just another reason to try to get some more. "We know that during sleep, cortisol levels decrease as part of the body's normal circadian rhythm. When you're lacking sleep, cortisol levels remain high, which has an impact on your oil glands," and can cause breakouts, explains Josh Zeichner, M.D., New York City-based board-certified dermatologist.

Too Much Experimentation with Products

Extra time for self-care is great—no question about that. But unbridled skincare experiments where your face is the subject? Not so much. "People are trying all sorts of new products at the same time—or just using too many products in general right now because they're bored and curious about experimenting with new stuff," says esthetician Ali Tobias. "I've seen a lot of over-exfoliation that has left the skin really inflamed and raw—the only real treatment for that is to give your skin a break and go back to basics."

The Zoom Effect

What we're dubbing 'the zoom effect' has to do with the fact that many of us are staring at ourselves more than usual, and have a bit of extra time to examine our skin. Being home looking in the mirror, or video conferencing all day means some people are hyper-aware of blemishes—and that can lead to skin picking.

"Then we have a vicious cycle of acne and scarring on the skin, which is stressful," says Dr. Pritzker. "I often see picking as a major problem during stressful times. Unfortunately, picking will lead to longer-lasting scars that will remind you of these stressful times and it is not worth it! It's time to get rid of the magnifying mirrors and put the tweezers in a place you cannot find them," she says. (See: Busy Philipps Shared Her Experience Using Meditation for Her Skin Picking)

Dryness, Irritation, and Inflammation

Acne isn't the only skin problem presenting itself in quarantine. Some have found their skin drier than ever, while others have been confronted with flare-ups of eczema or rosacea, or conditions like perioral dermatitis. "Anything stress-related has flared—psoriasis, eczema, acne, seborrheic dermatitis," says Dr. Engelman, of the quarantine skin reactions she's observed amongst her patients. "The skin and nervous system are very much connected. When stress levels increase, inflammatory skin conditions often flare as well."

As for dryness, there's an interesting culprit: "As a result of stress, the 'fight or flight' signal will make you sweat more to cool the skin in response to helping your whole internal system and this will lead to water loss within the skin," drying it out, says Dr. Pritzker. (See: The Difference Between Dry and Dehydrated Skin)

The Takeaways

If you're breaking out:

"If you feel like you're more oily than normal, start with a change in a cleanser, as opposed to changing your entire regimen. Sometimes this little change will be all that you needed and you don't have to throw everything else away," says Florida-based dermatologist Joely Kaufman, M.D. Try a cleanser with salicylic acid and make sure you have a trusty spot treatment on hand. Finally, it's a great time to start using retinol. You can start with a gentle formula and use it just once a week to start.

  • Perricone MD Prebiotic Acne Therapy 90-Day Regimen (Buy It, $89, perriconemd.com): This 3-piece kit will help you keep acne at bay with a super-simple 2-step regimen (cleanse and then a different treatment for morning and night). It checks the salicylic acid-infused cleanser off your shopping list too.
  • Kinship Pimple Potion (Buy It, $16, lovekinship.com): This little tube contains retinol, salicylic acid, bakuchiol, and a proprietary prebiotic to banish blemishes faster.
  • Zitsticka Hyperfade (Buy It, $34, ulta.com): If you're guilty of the aforementioned skin picking, you'll be grateful for these microdart patches which infuse skin with brightening ingredients to help eliminate any post-zit discoloration.

If you've over-exfoliated:

If you overdid it with the self-care (one too many exfoliating masks, etc.), look for soothing, restorative products to nurse your skin back to baseline.

If you're super dry:

Make sure to nourish your skin with hydration and moisture. Integrate a hydrating serum, moisturizer, and oil to bring your skin back to life.

If Your Skin Is... Clearer Than Ever

As for those lucky enough to have great skin right now, here are some possible explanations for why—and tips for how to maintain post-quarantine.

Sticking More Diligently to a Routine

One of the gifts of quarantine? A little bit more time, even if it's just from not having to commute to and from the office. "Now that people are working from home, they also have more time to take good care of their skin and may be more diligent in their skincare routine than they had been in the past," says Dr. Zeichner—and unsurprisingly, sticking to a regimen helps your skin. It takes consistent use to reap the benefits of your skincare products, and using too many products with different active ingredients can actually counteract each other, irritate skin, or not absorb properly, causing clogged pores or breakouts.

Embracing a 'Clean' Lifestyle

On the flipside of indulging in junk food are people responding to quarantine by "going 'clean,' working out, eating clean, and not drinking," says Dr. Engelman. "The food we eat can promote healthy digestion and provide vitamins and minerals vital to the health of our skin and body." (See: The Best Vitamins and Minerals for Better Skin)

Taking a Break From Makeup

Has it been a long time since you've worn a full-face of makeup? You're not alone—and you might be helping your skin, too. "Makeup—particularly liquid foundations—can cause both skin irritation and clog pores, leading to pimples. Not using it allows your skin to reset itself," explains Dr. Zeichner. (See: 7 Things That Might Happen If You Stop Wearing Makeup)

Taking Time to Nail Down Your Routine

This is the perfect time to come up with a routine you can stick to (especially if you want to make sure your complexion continues #thriving post-quarantine). "I'm actually seeing an uptick in the number of patients making appointments to specifically come up with a skincare routine that addresses their particular needs," says Dr. Zeichner. If you're not sure which ingredients or products are best for you, this is a great time to schedule a teledermatology appointment to figure out a plan of action.

The Takeaways:

If you've used quarantine to achieve a better balance in your life—perhaps you're getting more exercise, eating better, or carving out more time for a skincare routine—the best thing you can do is try to keep it up even when life gets back to "normal" (and inevitably busier) again.

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