Eight Ways to Prevent Breakouts from Wearing a Mask All the Time

Boston-based dermatologists share helpful tips for dealing with more frequent breakouts, and other skin issues caused by wearing a face mask.

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I’m just going to say what everyone is thinking: Wearing a mask sucks. Wearing a mask while running sucks. Wearing a mask while doing any of the normal activities I enjoy doing during the summer will suck. Every time I put it on, I’m suddenly thrust back to my elementary days being forced into skirts and dresses. I would throw my arms up in protest and complain about how uncomfortable they made me feel and how they didn’t allow me to do many of the fun things I enjoyed doing. And yet I’ve learned to enjoy some of these clothing items in my adult life. And that’s what I frequently have to tell myself now about the face mask. There is a specific season for skirts and dresses, and now there’s a specific season for masks and face coverings.

The frustration only mounts though when I take the mask off to reveal little breakouts around my nose and mouth where there weren’t any previously. So I reached out to two local dermatologists to get to the bottom of the problem. While we focused mostly on spot breakouts, the two derms I spoke with also mentioned that frequently wearing a mask can exacerbate other preexisting skin issues you may deal with, like eczema, rosacea, or acne. In some people’s case, it might even cause an onset of new skin issues or allergies you might not have noticed before. But the good news is, the below set of tips will work almost universally for all of these pesky skin irritants caused by your mask.

Try a silk mask

As we head into warmer weather, it’s going to be even more critical to find a mask fabric that is breathable, moisture-wicking, and doesn’t cause too much damage to the skin’s protective barrier. One of the main reasons people might experience skin irritation is because their mask isn’t the right type of fabric for their skin type. Dr. Mathew Avram, director of the Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, says if you have acne-prone skin or sensitive skin, silk will be your best bet because it glides more easily across the face. “You want to decrease the amount of friction between your face and the mask,” he adds. “That is what causes some of that irritation and inflammation.” Cotton is also a good choice, if you can’t find silk.

Use a gentle cleanser to wash your face

Dr. Abigail Waldman, clinical director of the Mohs Dermatologic Surgery Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, adds the other reason you might be experiencing breakouts or skin irritants, other than just the material of the mask being irritating, is because the mask is blocking the skin follicles and trapping dirt and oil. This can lead to those annoying breakouts around your nose and mouth, called perioral dermatitis.

That’s why cleansing your skin often is important. “Essentially, the main thing to prevent this is to maintain a good daily skin routine,” Waldman says. “That means using a gentle cleanser at least twice daily, and not using harsh bar soaps.” She says you don’t want to strip your skin’s protective barrier by using harsh cleansers because that will lead to a worsening of your problems. If, after you wash your face, your skin feels tight, that’s a sign that you’re cleansing with something too harsh, or too often. Avram says it might be a good idea to wash immediately after wearing the mask, but don’t overdo it. If you have just exercised in the mask, wash your face (and the mask), but otherwise you should be okay to wait to wash your face until the evening.

This is not the time to change anything about your skincare routine

I know it could be tempting to try new creams, soaps, or toners with all this free time on your hands. But Waldman says the worst thing you can do right now is switch things up with your skincare routine. “Stick to products that you know you won’t have a reaction to,” she says. You don’t want to get into a bind where you don’t know whether the mask is causing your skin issues or your skin care routine is causing your skin issues. Keep it simple and keep it the same for now.

Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer

You’ve probably seen the word non-comedogenic on some skin care lines before. It means that the product will not clog your pores. If you’re already acne-prone, or even if you’re not, it might be a good idea to start using a non-comedogenic moisturizer. You want to keep your products to a minimum. Avram says that the moisturizer also acts as a barrier between your skin and the mask. Don’t continuously reapply throughout the day though if you err on the side of oily. Applying once in the morning and once at night should suffice.

Try stronger forms of treatment

If you continue to experience breakouts along the jaw line or around the nose and mouth, Waldman suggests trying over the counter products like adapalene gel or other retinoids and/or azelaic acid. Retinoids increase the cell rate turnover, and keep the build up of dead skin cells at a minimum, while azelaic acid has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties to clear up the acne. Tea tree oil also has similar properties. Waldman adds that both tend to dry out and irritate the skin, though, so use a pea size amount and alternate the days you use it to build up your skin’s tolerance. If you have bad breakouts, you could also try using a wash with salicylic acid, which works to increase the amount of moisture in the skin and dissolves the substance that causes skin cells to stick together, causing breakouts.

Cut back on makeup (or don’t wear any at all)

You’re probably already not wearing much makeup to begin with, but if you are, try not to wear it under your mask. “Makeup is going to soil the mask, and since we don’t have an overabundance of masks in this country, like others, you want to extend the life of your mask as much as possible,” Avram says. It also goes without saying that makeup further clogs pores and irritates existing skin issues. If you must wear makeup, you can find foundations and powders that are non-comedogenic.

Avoid bleach when washing your mask, and wash it frequently

Bleach can be irritating to the face, so don’t use it when you wash your mask. When you do wash it, Waldman says to observe how your skin reacts to the newly washed mask, as your face might have a different reaction to your detergent than your body. She suggests using a hypoallergenic detergent if you have issues and to avoid any fragrances or chemicals that could worsen your condition. Aim to keep your mask as clean as possible, and it might be helpful not to wear the same mask that you work out in for other activities.

If your conditions persist, see a dermatologist

As always, if your conditions persist, or worsen, set up an appointment with a dermatologist, either in person or through telehealth to diagnose your condition. They will be able to give you more pointed directions, and if needed, prescribe stronger forms of treatments like antibiotics or prescription strength gels and creams. And, if you still needed the reminder, don’t pick, scratch, or pop anything on your body. As my mother used to say: You’re only going to make it worse.