The human face was never meant to be covered for long periods of time. But under the new norm brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become a necessity.
And while research from Johns Hopkins University reports two people wearing face masks can cut down the possibility of viral transmission to less than 2%, the masks do nothing for the overall health of our skin.
Whether the face coverings are made of paper or cloth, wearing them for long periods of time can irritate the skin, clog pores and cause acne flare-ups along the face and neck. Some have jokingly dubbed the affliction "maskne."
Dr. Ahmed Badawi, a new dermatologist at Freeman Health System, has seen patients inside the C.H. Bentlage Building for a few weeks now, but he’s only seen two local cases of “maskne.”
“To be honest, I think I’ve heard more about it than I’ve seen it,” he said. For those who are suffering from a sudden onset of red pimples or sores, he added, “I’m sure it’s frustrating, a nuisance and annoying.”
While masks can cause new outbreaks of acne across the chin, jawline and neck — thus, the “maskne” term — there are actually several types of mask-related skin issues people are seeing, he said.
The most common type, of course — and the one he’s treated in his office — is the acne or acne-related problems that appear on the skin beneath the mask.
To treat this type of skin irritation, “I would recommend for it what I would recommend for general skin health, which is gentle face cleanser twice a day, a non-acne-inducing moisturizer daily” and to also “avoid harsh, irritating skin products,” he said.
Fabric masks should be washed frequently, he said, and any mask is fine as long as it allows ventilation.
As for makeup, “Ideally, no makeup (should be worn) underneath the mask, but that’s not really practical,” he said, so if someone has to use makeup and put a mask over it during a typical work day, he suggests purchasing non-acne-inducing, alcohol-free and fragrance-free makeup products.
A second common type of skin irritations are pressure-induced outbreaks — actual open, weeping sores — that patients get along their nasal bridge or the back of their ears from the pressure of the masks being worn.
“We see those mostly from the front-line health care workers wearing N95 masks that need to be on securely,” he said.
The best way to combat the sores is to adjust the mask to ensure a proper fit. Should the problem persist after that, there are alcohol-free barrier skin films that patients can put on. The skin films can be purchased over the counter.
The third type of skin irritation mask wearers are seeing is contact dermatitis, and that’s primarily irritation and inflammation with the skin coming in contact with the mask or its materials.
“That can be allergic, or it can be an irritant from the moisture,” Badawi said.
Sometimes switching over to a mask with a different fabric or material can ease the inflammation. The aforementioned skin films or a weak topical steroid can be used to help alleviate the problems. Also, taking breaks where the mask can be removed will often help reduce the skin irritation, he said.
These mask-related skin problems tend to hit younger people rather than older people because of the amount of oil in their skin, and they seem to plague women far more than they do men, perhaps because of makeup being applied during the work week.
“Big picture — try to keep your skin as healthy as possible,” he said.