Protective face masks are a shield that cover your skin, preventing particles from getting in and escaping out. This means that your breath creates moisture underneath your mask, making that part of your skin an ideal environment for breakouts to form—especially if a mask is tight or occlusive. The constant friction against your skin leads to irritation, which can take the form of acne. "Some of the things I'm seeing [from face masks] are acne, or 'maskne,' as it's been called, as well as hyperpigmentation," says Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and host of our YouTube skin-care show Dear Derm. The closer masks are to the skin and the thicker they are, the more likely they are to result in breakouts, she says.
While the medical standard face mask—the N95—isn't gentle on the skin, many brands are coming out with more comfortable options made from different fabrics that are much less aggressive on the complexion. Keep scrolling for a dermatologist-approved guide on combatting face mask breakouts.
How to treat and prevent acne from face masks
1. Choose the right fabric: Dr. Gohara recommends going with a cotton face mask above all else, since it's the most gentle fabric on the skin. (If you're not a healthcare worker, of course.) "You want a fabric that's breathable. Something that's too heavy or too thick will be hard to breathe through," says Melissa Levin, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology. "As the fashion world will quickly incorporate different fabrics and patterns, it's important to make sure at least the side that's touching your skin is a cotton, breathable fabric if you're going to overlay lace, which I've seen in a lot of cases. Just make sure that the lace isn't touching your skin because that can cause roughness and irritation."
2. Avoid skin-sensitizing ingredients: Skin-care ingredients that leave your skin more vulnerable to damage—like retinol and strong chemical exfoliants—can also make your skin more prone to breakouts. "If you're having acne under your mask and you're going to have to wear a mask repeatedly for a while, which all of us are, I would recommend not making the skin a little more sensitive with a vitamin A derivative," says Dr. Gohara. So save your retinoid for another time.
3. Spot treat breakouts: In place of your trusty retinol, dermatologists suggest spot treating acne. Dr. Gohara recommends doing this with a 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide product or a "tiny dab" of cortisone to decrease the inflammation. If you have a skin sensitivity to benzoyl peroxide, Dr. Levin says to use azelaic acid. "I like it because it's anti-inflammatory, and there are a lot of over-the-counter options for it," she says.
4. Protect your skin barrier: As a general rule for face mask skin irritation, it's key to nourish your skin barrier. Do this by using gentle facial cleansers and moisturizing regularly. "Do gentle cleansing, and moisturize with a thicker barrier cream," says Dr. Levin. "Keep it simple, as it's all about protecting and restoring that barrier." Both Dr. Levin and Dr. Gohara recommend Vaseline, and Dr. Gohara is a fan of Dove gentle cleansers.
Learn more about how to combat face mask irritation below:
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