While many medical professionals already wear protective masks every day, wearing a face mask out in public has suddenly become a part of everyday life for the rest of us as well. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about some of the changes people are seeing in their skin as a result of wearing masks and other protective gear on their faces. The most common complaints I’m hearing about are increased breakouts and sensitivity or irritation.
Face masks may be necessary for now, but blemishes and irritated skin aren’t. Keeping reading to learn how to mitigate the negative effects of wearing a face mask.
How Do Protective Face Masks Cause Breakouts?
Wearing a mask or other protective gear around your face can lead to a type of acne called acne mechanica. The only difference between acne mechanica and regular acne is the cause; while regular breakouts tend to be hormonally-driven, acne mechanica is caused by friction (a physical disruption to the skin).
When something is constantly rubbing up against your skin, the combination of friction, heat, and pressure can be a trigger for breakouts. This is especially true if you’re having to wear a protective mask while you work out (athletic equipment is already notorious for causing acne mechanica thanks to the combination of synthetic fabrics, sweat, and lots of movement).
In addition to friction, a mask that covers your mouth can cause breakouts because of the moist environment it creates. Your breath traps moisture and heat, which stimulates oil flow. This combo of oil, heat, and moisture is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
Another reason protective face masks can cause breakouts is the pressure they exert on your pores. You may notice that, after removing a mask, you have indents in your skin from where it was pressing up against your face. These indents could actually be changing the shape of your pores, causing a buildup of oil.
Imagine your pores as a network of tubes under your skin that funnels oil to the surface. Oil is meant to flow freely through these tubes, but if they become kinked or bent from pressure, oil gets stuck and backs up instead of flowing out.
The bottom line? Wearing a protective face mask creates a perfect environment for breakouts to thrive.
How To Prevent Acne Caused by Protective Face Masks
So how can you keep your protective face mask (whether real or makeshift) from clogging your pores?
The goal should be to create a healthy environment in your skin where bacteria won’t thrive. This comes down to reducing oil production and using products with non-drying, antimicrobial properties.
Use an Antibacterial Toner Throughout the Day
If you’re wearing a protective face mask for a large part of the day, one thing I recommend is wiping an antibacterial toner like my award-winning Rapid Response Detox Toner over the affected area once or twice a day. This is a lot easier and more practical than stopping to wash your face mid-day, especially if you’re working. Antibacterial ingredients to keep an eye out for include salicylic acid, lactic acid, tea tree oil, and manuka leaf extract.
Just make sure whichever toner you choose is non-drying and alcohol-free. Drying out the skin will lead to more oil production—the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.
Reset the Skin at Night
Properly cleansing your face before bed is always important. When you’ve spent all day wearing a face covering that traps heat, sweat, oil, and bacteria, it’s especially necessary. It’s tough to properly clean your face throughout the day, so it’s important to use your nighttime routine as an opportunity to really reset your skin.
If you’re worried about acne as a result of wearing a face mask, the most important thing you can do is be diligent about your skincare routine. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to stay on top of the problem than it is to try to fix it once things have gotten out of hand.
Start by cleansing your skin with a gentle, antimicrobial face wash that contains ingredients like salicylic acid or tea tree extract. I also love the addition of a little kaolin clay because it absorbs built-up oil and other impurities.
After cleansing, I suggest using a face masque (the fun kind this time!). Look for a soothing, antibacterial masque like Rapid Response Detox Masque. Its antimicrobial properties kick in after just five minutes while hydrating ingredients soothe the skin to counteract friction caused by wearing a face mask.
Use a Serum With Salicylic Acid
I recommend using a serum with salicylic acid two to three nights a week. Salicylic acid is unique in that it has the ability to cut through oil and really get into your pore lining. Remember that face masks trap oil in your pores by exerting pressure on them and creating indentations in the skin (which can change the shape of pores). Salicylic acid will be able to really get into your pores to clear out this build-up of oil so it doesn’t turn into a full-on breakout.
Try a Mineral Sunscreen Powder
Even if you work indoors, you should be wearing sunscreen 365 days a year to protect your skin from UV damage. Unfortunately, sunscreens are notorious for causing problems when it comes to acne and clogged pores. If you’re already struggling to keep your skin clear while wearing a protective face mask, you may want to opt for a mineral sunscreen powder instead of a traditional lotion- or cream-based sunscreen.
Mineral powders are easy to touch up during the day, especially if you’re wiping the skin down with an antibacterial toner. They also sit on top of the skin instead of settling into pores, which is why they’re far less likely to cause blemishes. An added bonus? Powders will absorb excess oil sitting on the skin.
Regularly Wash Your Protective Gear
If you’re wearing a bandana, scarf, or reusable cloth mask when you go out, be sure to wash it regularly. Not only is this the best practice for good hygiene, but it will also prevent oil and dirt from being reintroduced onto the skin.
How Do Protective Face Masks Cause Irritation?
The friction responsible for acne mechanica is also the culprit behind most irritation caused by protective face masks. In fact, red, bumpy, rashy skin is a common precursor to acne mechanica.
All of these are also signs of inflammation, which can wake up your skin’s pigment cells and cause lingering pigmentation long after the erythema (redness) has subsided. To avoid this, it’s best to address irritation right away.
When an object is consistently being rubbed across your skin, it can also disrupt your protective moisture barrier. Your moisture barrier is made up of lipids that keep moisture in while keeping irritants out. If something is rubbing against your skin all day, it can create tiny cracks in your barrier. This then has the opposite effect—moisture escapes and irritants get in.
One common symptom of a damaged barrier is that products that usually don’t sting your skin suddenly do. If you’re experiencing this, your moisture barrier may be compromised.
How To Prevent Irritation Caused by Protective Face Masks
The most important thing to focus on when treating irritation is keeping the skin protected and well-hydrated.
Use a Serum-Infused Toner Throughout the Day
If irritated, rashy skin is your concern, try using a hydrating, serum-infused toner a few times a day. I think of these toners as more of an ‘essence’ because they pamper and soothe thirsty skin cells by delivering moisture deep into the skin. Doing this a few times a day will remove dirt and oil buildup while simultaneously soothing the skin.
Apply a little moisturizer on top once you’re finished to seal everything in.
Use a Cooling Masque Before Bed
Start your evening routine by using a non-foaming lotion or gel cleanser to remove oil and debris from the skin. Massage thoroughly (but gently) to break down any sunscreen or makeup you were wearing.
Once your skin is clean, I suggest applying a cooling, gel-based masque. Gel masques tend to be the most soothing thanks to their naturally cooler temperatures. You can even stash your masque in the fridge for an extra-comforting treat!
Avoid Over-Exfoliation and Physical Scrubs
When the skin is irritated and sensitive, the last thing you want to do is aggravate it even more. Be cautious when it comes to using exfoliating acids. The purpose of these is to slough dead cells off the surface of your skin, which a face mask is already doing by manually rubbing back and forth. Adding in even more exfoliation could be too much. Listen to your skin and pull back if it seems like too much.
I also recommend staying away from face scrubs and sonic cleansing brushes when your skin is irritated. Physical exfoliation is already harder on the skin than chemical exfoliation, and in this case, adding even more friction into the equation by scrubbing your face certainly won’t do you any favors.
Use a Moisturizer With Soothing Ingredients
To focus on rebuilding and protecting your skin’s protective moisture barrier, use a healing moisturizer with reparative ingredients. A few of my favorites include shea butter, tocopherol, and sunflower oil, but you can find a full list here.
Also, keep an eye out for the addition of ingredients that will soothe skin and calm inflammation. This could include chamomile, white tea, ascorbyl palmitate, and oat kernel extract. If you want to calm and heal inflamed skin but worry about heavy moisturizers breaking you out, I recommend a lotion like Skin Recovery Lotion.
Avoid any moisturizers with high percentages of essential oils or any kind of synthetic fragrance. Both of these are notorious for irritating the skin and can break your moisture barrier down over time.
Whether you wear a mask on the job or just started wearing one in public to help do your part, I hope you find these tips helpful! Wishing everyone good health. XX Renée
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”