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Last updated January 18, 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 at the tail end of 2019 and into 2020, 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, such as 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 maskne-causing bacteria to grow on your face. “Maskne” is a colloquial term that refers to acne, irritated hair follicles, small bumps, contact dermatitis, itchiness, and rosacea (red skin) that develop due to mask-wearing (Genetics Home Reference, 2018). 

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

How do you treat maskne?

You can help treat and 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, liquid, etc.), and your skin type (oily, dry, combination, etc). One study found that a foam face wash was the best crowd-pleaser and irritated study participants’ skin the least (Del Rosso, 2013). It’s also important to consult your dermatologist, especially if you are already on any kind of skin medication, to ensure that your cleanser and moisturizer won’t interact with your treatment.

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Using a cleanser twice a day exfoliates your skin. Products with retinol can particularly promote the keratinization process, which enables dead skin cells to rub off and make way for new, healthier skin cells. This may cause irritation at first but typically subsides after a couple of weeks. Using retinol may also make your skin more prone to sunburn, so be sure to use sunscreen daily.

Using a hydrating moisturizer keeps your skin healthy by preventing transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Choosing moisturizers with SPF 30 has been shown to reduce TEWL (Del Rosso, 2013). TEWL is also a natural process, but to promote skin health, moisturizing can prevent damage and side effects of acne treatment (Rensburg et al., 2019). However, moisturizing should not be considered a treatment by itself. If you notice your skin turning red or itchy, stop using the product and see a healthcare provider. 

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, like quilting fabric or cotton sheets, to make your mask. For no-sew solutions, bandanas, old t-shirts, or square cotton cloths will work in a pinch (CDC, 2020).

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, 2020).

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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 to protect you from virus particles. This will prevent it from slipping off or rubbing on your face too much, along with keeping you from touching your face.

Lastly, avoid wearing makeup. 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 annoyances, wearing a mask has proven to provide 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. However, the tips in this article can help get rid of those inconveniences so you can continue to wear your mask to keep you and others safe.