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Last updated September 10, 2021. 4 minute read

"Maskne": can wearing a face covering cause pimples?

Wearing a face mask can trap all sorts of oils, sweat, and dirt, worsened when you’re sweating through the summer. You might also need to adjust your face mask often, which can lead to increased face-touching and mask-rubbing. These are all perfect conditions for maskne-causing bacteria to grow on your face.

Written by Gerrie Lim, MPH
Reviewed by Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Since the coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm, scientists, researchers, and healthcare professionals learned that wearing a mask reduces your chance of spreading and contracting the respiratory virus. However, mask-wearing can be a little problematic for some people with sensitive skin.

Vitals

  • Wearing a mask can cause your face to break out, whether it’s through trapping sweat, oil, and dirt, or rubbing against your skin. You can try to control “maskne” through carefully selected cleansers and moisturizers. Avoid wearing makeup and touching your face.

As most people know, the face is a sensitive area that may already be prone to developing acne, like open comedones (blackheads), closed comedones (whiteheads), and inflammatory lesions (nodules, pustules, and papules). Any part of the body with a high density of oil glands can be prone to clogging or skin irritation, which leads to breakouts and pimples (Fox, 2016).

Wearing a face mask can trap all sorts of oils, sweat, and dirt, worsened when you’re sweating through the summer. You might also need to adjust your face mask often, which can lead to increased face-touching and mask-rubbing. These are all perfect conditions for bacteria to grow on your face and cause maskne. “Maskne”, or mask acne, is a colloquial term that refers to acne, irritated hair follicles, small bumps, contact dermatitis, itchiness, and redness that develop due to mask-wearing and is related to friction and bacterial growth (Teo, 2021). 

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Even though maskne can be annoying, it’s important to continue mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

How do you treat maskne?

You can treat and help prevent maskne by implementing a regular skincare routine. Building a skincare routine starts with a cleanser and a moisturizer.

When choosing a cleanser and moisturizer, it’s important to look at the ingredients, formula class, (such as foam or liquid), and your skin type (oily, dry, or combination). Gentle cleansers are best at balancing skin bacteria (also called the skin microbiome). It’s helpful to avoid harsher ingredients like salicylic acid. Lotion and serum are better choices for moisturizers—avoid thicker creams (Teo, 2021a).

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Some topical medications (like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid) can irritate the skin and are not used to treat maskne. Certain products, like topical treatments made with zinc or plant products, reduce skin inflammation and redness and can help treat maskne (Teo, 2021b). If you’re not sure which topical treatment is best, ask your healthcare provider for advice.

How do you prevent maskne?

While cleansers and moisturizers can help treat and prevent maskne, you can also look into your face mask and mask habits.

Mask fabric

If you’re not using a medical-grade mask, such as an N95, KN95, or surgical mask, you might be inclined to use a fabric mask. When choosing a fabric mask, it can be difficult to know what is porous enough so you can breathe easily, while also protective enough to stop virus particles from getting in. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using 100% cotton, particularly tightly woven cotton (CDC, 2021). A mask should be smooth without extra creases or folds, since those can irritate the skin. Lighter colored fabrics retain less heat and help prevent redness (Teo, 2021-a).

Disposable masks should be worn once and then thrown away. Fabric masks should be washed often not only to rid the masks of germs, but also dirt, sweat, oils, and other irritants accumulated from your face. Ensure that you use the warmest setting on your laundry machine or use bleach if you’re washing by hand. Try to keep multiple masks on hand, as the CDC recommends setting a mask aside to wash after each use to ensure cleanliness (CDC, 2021).

Other habits

There are other steps you can take to keep your skin healthy while wearing a mask.

Try to make sure that your face mask is secure when you initially put it on. The face mask should be tight-fitting and fully cover your nose and mouth to protect you from virus particles. This will also prevent it from slipping off or rubbing on your face too much and will keeping you from touching your face.

Lastly, avoid wearing makeup when possible. Makeup can trap the aforementioned dirt, sweat, and bacteria on your face. Wearing a mask on top of makeup can make that worse.

Despite its challenges, wearing a mask has proven to be a valuable protection against diseases, especially the coronavirus. Though pimples and acne can certainly be annoying, it can be a small price to pay for both staying healthy and preventing disease spread. The tips in this article can help get prevent or treat those inconveniences so you can continue to wear your mask to keep you and others safe.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 28). Use Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow Spread. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html
  2. Del Rosso, J. (2013). The Role of Skin Care as an Integral Component in the Management of Acne Vulgaris: Part 1: The Importance of Cleanser and Moisturizer Ingredients, Design, and Product Selection. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 6(12), 19-27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3997205/
  3. Fox, L., Csongradi, C., Aucamp, M., Du Plessis, J., & Gerber, M. (2016). Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules, 21(8), 1063. doi:10.3390/molecules21081063 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6273829/
  4. Teo W. L. (2021a). The “Maskne” microbiome – pathophysiology and therapeutics. International journal of dermatology60(7), 799–809. doi:10.1111/ijd.15425. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33576511/

    Teo W. L. (2021b). Diagnostic and management considerations for “maskne” in the era of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology84(2), 520–521. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2020.09.063. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8013758/#ijd15425-bib-0001
  5. Van Rensburg, S. J., Franken, A., & Plessis, J. L. (2019). Measurement of transepidermal water loss, stratum corneum hydration and skin surface pH in occupational settings: A review. Skin Research and Technology, 25(5), 595-605. doi:10.1111/srt.12711, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/srt.12711