Warm air circulating in your mask as well as friction can be a breeding ground for bacteria. No wonder 'maskne' is now a thing. We asked top skin doctors for their advice and product picks to help avoid and deal with break-outs
Whether you’ve been fully PPE'd up for months now or are just taking your first tentative steps outside, mask in place, you might have noticed an unpleasant side-effect of wearing a face covering. As well as fogged-up your glasses and seriously messing with your Face ID, using a face mask can give you spots – dubbed maskne.
Dr Sophie Shotter , an aesthetic doctor who has been working on the NHS frontline throughout the pandemic, has seen firsthand the effect masks can have on the skin. “I’ve seen major problems among colleagues; broken down skin on noses, irritation in the area the mask covers, abrasions where the straps cross the cheeks and severe breakouts beneath the mask.”
It’s not just frontline workers suffering though; in a recent Instagram Live about acne , dermatologists Sam Bunting and Emma Wedgeworth were inundated with questions about masks causing breakouts and gave out some sound advice for those suffering an how to switch up your skincare and makeup regime.
Why do masks cause breakouts?
Sweat, bacteria and the moisture from our breath all mingle beneath the mask leading to a breeding ground for bacteria – and that’s before you add pore-clogging makeup into the mix. The chin and jaw are often problem areas for acne sufferers anyway and covering up for a significant period of time can make it worse.
Friction is an issue too; if you regularly wear a cycling helmet you might have noticed irritation along your jaw where the straps rub and the same can happen with a mask. “Irritation in a localised area can trigger acne,” explains Dr Sam Bunting. “Sweat combined with friction and pressure can potentially cause damage to the skin,” agrees Dr Anjali Mahto.
How to manage maskne – and avoid it
1. Stick to gentle cleansing
The first step is simple: be consistent with your cleansing routine. “Ensuring the skin is cleansed thoroughly and well moisturised may help relieve some of the symptoms of discomfort,” advises Dr Anjali. “Stick to unscented or fragrance-free cleansers such as La Roche Posay Toleriane Dermo Cleanser , £12.50, or Cerave Hydrating Cleanser , £9.50. If your skin is oily or acne-prone then go for a foaming cleanser if dry, irritated or sensitive then opt for a cream cleanser and ensure you stick to cleansing twice daily.” Rather than rubbing your skin with a towel, pat it dry to avoid extra irritation, she continues.
That said, don't over-cleanse the skin. It can be tempting to get rid the grimy feeling but it could do more harm than good to cleanse more than twice a day, leading to dryness, irritation and redness. The exception to this is if you've been sweating, as Anjali points out: “In that case, there may be benefit in cleansing immediately afterwards with a gentle cleanser which will not strip the skin."
Dr Sam advises staying away from anything rougher than the fingertips when cleansing mask-irritated skin to avoid further upset – so no muslin cloths or flannels.
Avoid thick cleansing oils, balms and butters, especially coconut oil, which can be comedogenic. Check the ingredients label for the following ingredients which have been shown int he lab to be comedogenic: isopropyl myristate, propylene glycol, 2 myristyl, propionate and lanolin.
2. Use a barrier cream
Your skin barrier is there to stop potential irritants passing through to deeper layers where they can cause breakouts. Support it on mask days by wearing a barrier cream. You may be worrying that a barrier cream might be comedogenic, clogging pores and causing the very spots you are trying to prevent. Dr Sam assures us that there are non-comedogenic barrier creams, which our experts list here.
For morning, use a cream that's hydrating and occlusive i.e. it locks moisture in and keeps nasties out, says Dr Sam. She rates Avene Cicalfate Restorative and Protective Cream , £8, a fragrance-free barrier cream that's gentle enough for babies.
Cetaphil Hydrating Moisturiser , £12.99 gets the vote of Dr Anjali Mahto as s a daytime cream to help improve the barrier function of the skin. For overnight, she advises switching to Eucerin Aquaphor Healing Ointment , £20.70 or Eucerin Aquaphor Soothing Skin Balm £6.75 if you have extremely dry or irritated skin. They do contain some lanolin which, although potentially comedogenic, is a godsend for very dry skin that doesn't produce enough sebum, says Dr Sophie.
As an alternative, we like DeliKate Recovery Cream, £69, a calming fragrance-free moisturiser for sensitive skin that boosts skin barrier, as well as the new Smoosh moisturiser, £40 by Squish Beauty, fragrance-free, vegan and formulated with aceneic skin in mind. If you prefer a natural non-comedogenic oil, Dr Sophie says to opt for Weleda Pomegranate Firming Face Serum £37.50.
Niacinamide is a potent ingredient in the fight against mask-induced acne, and a particular favourite of Dr Sam who uses it in both her new Flawless Brightly Day Serum and Flawless Nightly Night Serum . “It’s soothing, barrier boosting and anti-inflammatory,” she explains.
You will probably be feeling this way anyway, but avoid aggressive ingredients ( retinoids particularly) that can harm the skin’s barrier, since it will already be taking a hit, advises Dr Sophie Shotter.
3. Use a pimple patch
If a spot does rear its ugly head, dermatologist Dr Terry recommends applying a spot patch over it as well as on top of any sign of a new spot brewing - we wrote an edit of the best pimple patches back at the start of the pandemic (it’s almost like we knew…) and recommend Patchology’s offering which includes patches for before the spot surfaces and once it's on your face, while Dr Terry suggests the ZitSticka ones. A spot patch will stop further bacteria coming into contact with your breakout, essentially quarantining the area.
4. Avoid makeup where possible
Dialling down your makeup is the most important element in the fight against mask-induced breakouts, says Dr Sophie. “Makeup tends to block pores," she explains. "Throw in the warm moisture of our breath being trapped under the mask and we are bound to get problems. I would recommend either going makeup-free or using Oxygenetix foundation , as it allows the skin to breathe. I wore Oxygenetix under my PPE throughout the pandemic and didn’t develop any problems whatsoever.”
Stick to non-comedogenic makeup advises Dr Emma.
5. Have a spray handy
In a touch-free world, sprays are your friend.
If your skin starts to feel dry throughout the day and you can’t easily reapply moisturiser, Dr Emma Wedgworth recommends La Roche Posay's Toleriane Ultra 8 Face Mist , £19.50, for a hit of hydration.
While working on Covid-positive hospital wards, Dr Sophie Shotter was never without her Clinisept+ Skin Protect a virus-killing mist that is alcohol-free, super gentle on the skin as well as being anti-bacterial. Spray it on the inside of your mask to disinfect, on your skin throughout the day and after cleansing to help heal wounds and clear spots.
Also recommended is natural skincare brand Balance Me's new PHA Clarifying Mist , £18. PHAs are gentle exfoliating acids that helo keep skin clear. Balance Me's mist also has antibacterial witch hazel and feels incredibly gentle.
Anti-pollution skincare may be finding a new purpose in the era of masks as many work by creating a film on the skin to act as a shield against microparticles, making them a useful barrier option. Just make sure you choose something unfragranced without too many actives if you are prone to breaking out. Top of our list is Frances Prescott's Tri Spritz £45, which does triple duty as a makeup setting spray, pollution barrier and skin repairer. Spray into the air first, then lean your face into the mist for best coverage.
5. Choose a mask material that's kind to your skin
A whole host of pretty-patterned masks may be available but rather than buying purely on aesthetics, look at the material. Avoid synthetic fibre, look for cotton and natural fibres such as silk (luxe!) that are less likely to irritate the skin. Wash after every wear.
At GTG we're wearing the four-layered washable eco masks from Masksup.co £14 (see our pics above) in lots well-fitting cool designs. They have a high level of particle filtration and come with a cotton inner lining.
The fit of your mask is key too: “Masks that are made to fit tightly are more likely to cause issues with pressure injury or occlusion [blocking] than those made of cloth,” advises Anjali.
Dr Terry advises regularly washing your mask too; she suggests spraying it after every use with a disinfectant spray made from half a cup of distilled water, half a cup of vinegar, ten drops of tea tree oil and ten drops of peppermint oil. Clinisept+ is a good spray option too if you want to avoid essential oils.
Superdrug is selling reusable face coverings made from antibacterial fibre and biocidal finishing which are water repellent, breathable and made from three-layered fabric technology with a middle layer of 3D interlock fabric which significantly reduces particle transfer. They're £2.99 each and come in black, pink and white.