Emily Fibeger, D.O.
Cosmetic Services, Dermatology
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over the age of 2 wear a mask while in public settings to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, prolonged mask wearing can cause discomfort or irritate of the skin on your face and ears. Here are some tips that I share with my patients to keep your skin healthy.
Masks' impact on skin
Face masks create an occlusive, or closed up, environment that increases the amount of moisture next to your skin. This excess moisture poses no concerns if you are wearing a mask for a short period of time, such as while grocery shopping or during a medical appointment. However, when wearing a mask for hours at a time, the excess moisture can lead to breakouts and skin irritation on the nasal bridge, chin or cheeks.
If you have a history of acne, rosacea, perioral dermatitis, eczema, or allergic contact dermatitis, you may find that your condition is worsened by prolonged face mask wearing. Some people can develop irritation or chafing behind their ears from the mask's elastic bands.
Selecting the right mask
Fit and material are important when buying a mask. It should be snug enough so it doesn’t slip off your nose and stays put on your chin while talking. Adjustable ear bands can be more comfortable and decrease irritation behind your ears.
Cotton masks are softer on the skin and appropriate for most people. N95 respirators are critical for health care workers but can cause pressure and skin tissue damage due to their tight fit. If you are required to wear an N95 respirator for work, remove the mask in a safe place away from other people for five minutes every two to three hours. Also, switch to cotton masks when you can safely do so, such as after work.
Preventing skin issues
The most important thing you can do to prevent breakouts and irritation is to keep your skin clean and well moisturized. Before and after wearing your mask, gently cleanse your face with a pH-balanced, noncomedogenic cleanser to remove oil, dirt, makeup and bacteria. Next, apply a gentle, fragrance-free, noncomedogenic moisturizer to your skin. Check the label for the words noncomedogenic, nonclogging or nonacnegenic to find the right option for you. Look for moisturizers that have dimethicone or ceramides as ingredients, which can help repair the skin barrier to prevent irritation from the masks.
Use zinc oxide if your skin develops breaks or tears. This product is available over the counter in many different forms, including paste, ointment, cream, spray, lotion and powder. Consider wearing headbands with buttons if your mask with elastic bands causes friction behind your ears.
There are two types of products I recommend people avoid when wearing a mask. First, avoid products with petrolatum. This ingredient can interfere with your mask's function and fit. Also, avoid wearing makeup, especially on the skin covered with a mask. It can increase irritation and soil the mask.
Finally, keeping your mask clean will help your skin healthy as well. A dirty mask counteracts any other prevention strategies you have done. Be sure to wash masks prior to wearing the first time. A washing machine or hand washing should suffice to properly wash a cloth face covering with regular laundry detergent. Mayo Clinic recommends a hot water temperature for washing face coverings.