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How to Conquer Mask Acne

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Tackle the pesky skin side effects of face coverings. 

Odds are, you have mask acne or know someone who does. A widespread problem, “maskne” is COVID lingo for irritation on cheeks, chin and nose that results from wearing face coverings. With no end in sight to mask requirements, local experts say there are things you can do to soothe your skin.

First, determine exactly what’s causing your skin to freak out. One common culprit is the fabric. If you’re wearing a cotton mask, switch to a surgical version or vice versa. This may help reduce redness from irritation. Moisture retention is another problem. “The mask traps moisture caused by breathing and heat, and that can cause acne,” says Dr. Michele Ziskind, a Paoli-based dermatologist.

At Bryn Mawr’s Cirillo Institute, Dr. Victoria Cirillo-Hyland sees a lot of medical personnel suffering from maskne. She’s had it, too. “We’re wearing masks all day, through long shifts, and they’re tight to our faces for protection,” she says.

Cirillo-Hyland has also been dealing with styes—the red bumps that grow on outer eyelids or lash lines. “I had one stye my whole life, but have had three since COVID,” Cirillo-Hyland says.

Face shields trap humidity in much the same way as masks, says Cirillo-Hyland. And though she’s not an ophthalmologist, Cirillo suggests that stye sufferers wash their eyes with baby shampoo, use hot compresses, or get prescription ointments.

Masks can cause real damage to the skin—“trauma to the outer layer of the skin that unleashes an inflammatory cascade,” says Cirillo-Hyland.

She compares it to rosacea, which causes facial redness and, often, small bumps. Cirillo-Hyland treats it with Soolantra or Finacea, two topical treatments for rosacea.

COVID-related stress may also cause blemishes. “When you’re stressed, you produce androgen hormones because of the fight-or-flight response,” says Ziskind. “Androgen is the primary driver of stress-related acne.”

Testosterone is a primary androgen, and elevated levels have a more severe impact on women than men. “A little extra androgen won’t typically bother men. But in women, it can cause acne, especially around the lower portion of the face,” says Ziskind, who tells patients to cover acne with makeup and leave it alone.

Either blemishes come to a head and heal on their own, or they retreat. If the acne doesn’t go away, see a dermatologist who can offer medical solutions like injecting the area with steroids or extracting it properly. But don’t pimple pop yourself. “You’ll drive inflammation into the skin,” Ziskind says. “That takes forever to heal, and you’ll get the non-healing cyst on the skin.”

Masks should have breathable fabric. Medical-grade versions generally accomplish that. And while they aren’t chic, they’re made to be worn for hours at a time. Don’t sacrifice efficiency for style. Every mask should meet safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Otherwise, you’re trading one problem for another.

If you have to wear a mask for a prolonged period of time, don’t wear makeup under it. That’s a surefire way to clog pores. “No one can see what’s under the mask anyway,” says Ziskind.

Mask hygiene is also important. “So many people come in with dirty masks,” Cirillo-Hyland says. “Wash your mask every day to avoid the build up of oil and bacteria. If the mask is disposable, dispose of it.”

Consider spraying the inside with salicylic acid, an acne-fighting solution widely available at big-box stores and on Amazon. Cirillo uses exfoliating pads to remove mask-related buildup on her face. She likes SkinBetter AlpaRet pads, with glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid. Depending on how dry her skin is, Cirillo-Hyland uses them two or three nights a week.

And don’t forget about the skin on the rest of your body. High-volume hand-washing results in dry skin that needs super-strength moisturizer. Detergents with virus-fighting ingredients may also irritate skin on arms, legs and backs. It’s best to get a dermatologist’s advice on treating that.

Skin treatments at spas are also making a serious comeback. Reassured by COVID safety protocols, clients have returned to Lori Pastore’s AME Salon and Spa in Wayne. Rest On Water is one of her favorite treatments. After an exfoliating body scrub and Swiss shower, hot mud, green tea or body butter is applied to skin. Clients are wrapped in a heated cocoon-like flotation bed. Then comes a full body massage. “All of the muscle tension is released,” says Pastore. “They say it’s like getting an eight-hour sleep and feeling completely relaxed.”