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Maskne treatment: Mask-related skin problems and how to deal with them

Wearing a face mask has huge benefits, but it can sometimes affect your skin. Here’s the best treatments for maskne and other mask-induced skin problems.

Masks and face coverings are now a part of everyday life and are important in keeping us all safe from Covid-19. Wearing a mask helps filter out viral particles in the air and so offers some protection against infection. It also protects other people if you’re infected without realising it. When you talk, cough or sneeze, you emit a fine spray of liquid particles as well as larger droplets, and these can transmit the virus. Wearing a mask helps contain these and stop them reaching others.

However, if you wear a mask or face covering for long periods, perhaps because you have a public-facing job, you could end up with skin problems such as acne, irritation, and flaking. And if you’re already prone to skin issues, wearing masks could make them worse.

Common skin problems sometimes caused by face masks

Maskne, (a Portmanteau of ‘mask’ and ‘acne’), causes spots, whiteheads and blackheads, redness, and inflammation. It occurs when pores become blocked by a build-up of the skin’s natural oils, bacteria and dead cells, which is the same process that leads to acne. You can suffer from acne at any age but it’s more common in your teens and 20s. Masks and face coverings trap moisture, sweat and oils. This creates the perfect condition for bacteria to multiply, leading to more irritation or infection.

Contact dermatitis, which can lead to redness, irritation, itching and flaking, is caused by your skin reacting to the material of your mask, or a sensitivity to the detergent you’ve used to wash it.

Friction, or rubbing, can also be a problem, especially behind the ears where the elastic loops can cut in, or on other pressure points such as the cheeks and bridge of the nose. Masks can also cause lots of micro abrasions on the surface of the skin, which you probably won’t be aware of. However, this can result in irritation if you have sensitive skin.

How to keep your skin healthy and prevent maskne 

Mask hygiene dos and don’ts

Do change your mask every few hours, or as soon as it gets damp.

Do wash reusable fabric masks after every use. If you have sensitive skin, make sure you use a gentle detergent.

Don’t be tempted to reuse disposable masks. Throw them away as soon as you take them off.

Don’t touch your mask when wearing it as this can transfer viral particles and bacteria to the mask.

Try skin-friendly mask options

“Using a looser, softer, lighter mask could help, but that’s not as safe as the heavier, tightly fitting fabrics,” says Benenden Hospital’s consultant dermatologist Dr Kurt Ayerst. “Or you could wear a visor, which again is not as good at protection.”

You could try face coverings made of natural fabrics, such as cotton, are these are less likely to trigger allergic reactions. If friction is a problem, a silk mask could help. And if the ear loops rub, you could switch to straps that go around the back of your head.

Take mask breaks

Give your skin a breather by removing your mask when it’s safe to do so, such as when you are in open outdoor spaces where you’re not going to get too close to other people. Giving your skin a frequent break from wearing a mask, could help prevent unwelcome maskne issues. It’s still best to keep your mask on when standing near others, such as in a queue outside the supermarket.

Up your skincare regime

“Wash your face with simple, neutral, fragrance-free cleanser, moisturise overnight and try not to rub or scratch if itchy as that creates extra inflammation,” advises Kurt. When you change your mask, you could use a cleansing wipe designed for sensitive skin or just use a dampened cotton wool pad. Then apply moisturiser to maintain the skin’s natural barrier. A slick of petroleum jelly applied to pressure points can help with friction, or you can buy barrier creams that form a protective film on your skin. It’s best to avoid make up if you’re going to be wearing a mask for long periods as this can contribute to clogged pores, leading to maskne or further mask-related skin issues.

Wear sunscreen under your mask

Most mask and face covering materials don’t provide adequate sun protection so you’ll still need sunscreen, especially during the summer months. Choose a light formulation with a UVB sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and at least 4-star UVA protection.

Pay attention to dental hygiene

Brush your teeth thoroughly twice a day and use interdental brushes or floss daily to clean between your teeth. Poor dental hygiene can result in a build-up of bacteria in your mouth that will be trapped by the mask when you breath out. This can contribute to skin breakouts.

Maskne treatment and help for other mask-induced skin problems

If home remedies for maskne don’t seem to be working, you should consult your GP or pharmacist. If you do have ongoing skin changes that persist for a long period then this is more likely to result in scarring so its best to get it under control by getting professional maskne treatment. Over-the-counter treatments include creams containing benzoyl peroxide, which kills the bacteria that cause acne. For more severe acne your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or topical retinoids, creams or gels containing a substance derived from Vitamin A that helps remove dead skin cells.

For dermatitis and dry, irritated skin, your GP or pharmacist may recommend emollients, or moisturisers that form a protective coating on your skin, or creams containing steroids, which reduce inflammation.

Benenden Health members can book a phone or video call to discuss skin problems, using our 24/7 GP Helpline.

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on December 2021. Next review date: December 2022.