Covid-19: Masks and your skin – what you should know

  • Fabric masks are mandatory, but may cause skin problems
  • Irritation, friction and occlusion are the main culprits
  • There are ways to tackle your mask-related skin woes

As fabric masks are now mandatory when you exercise outside, buy groceries or work outside your house, you might find that you are still struggling getting used to them.

Not only do those who wear glasses complain that their masks make their lenses fog up, or runners struggle to breathe with masks while out running, but there is another side-effect that a lot of us are starting to experience – skin woes.

Why do our skins suffer?

Our skin is delicate and can suffer from breakouts or rashes if we don’t take good care of it. Add a fabric mask to the equation, and there are several reasons why our skins could suffer. Here are some of the most common reasons why your skin might be acting out as a result of wearing a mask.

1. Excess moisture

According to Dr Ian Webster, a dermatologist from Cape Town, wearing a cloth mask occludes your skin, causing a build-up of moisture, mainly because of constant warm breath on your skin. The skin’s top layer (stratum corneum), when exposed to relentless moisture, may result in blocked pores, resulting in an acne breakout. The increased temperature or moisture can also cause rosacea, a red inflammatory rash, to flare up.

2. Irritants or allergens

Cloth masks need to be washed before use, as some fabrics can contain formaldehyde substances, such as triclosan and sulphites, which can cause contact dermatitis, an inflammatory condition that occurs when the skin is exposed to certain irritants or allergens.

With cloth masks, it’s not only formaldehyde textile substances that can lead to contact dermatitis, but there are several other irritants or allergens such as dyes or the laundry detergent you use to wash these masks. Even if you've never suffered a skin allergy from laundry detergent, your face may be more sensitive to harsh fragrances and chemicals now that you are wearing masks.

If you suspect that your laundry detergents might be causing skin irritation, wash your masks separately in a hot wash, with mild, fragrance-free soap. And if your skin might be reacting to the fabric, choose the most natural, good-quality fabric you can afford, such as cotton.

3. Physical friction

This phenomenon is especially seen in healthcare workers who wear PPE for long hours. The top layer of the skin rubs against the edges and elastics of respirator masks which may cause chafing and redness, especially across the nasal bridge, behind the ears and under the chin.

Contact dermatitis may also occur from the ear loop elastics if you are allergic to latex.

While this friction mostly occurs through the use of surgical and respirator masks in a healthcare setting, even fabric masks may have this effect if not properly fitted. Ensure that your mask is snug, but not uncomfortable.

4.  Makeup, sweat and everything underneath

As masks become the new normal, we still want to dress up and care for our skins exactly as we did before the Covid-19 pandemic, including wearing makeup.

But as your skin is now occluded by fabric and excess moisture from your breath, heavy makeup, moisturisers or products underneath the mask may clog your pores. Try scaling down on heavy makeup, creams and other products for now. If you are prone to breaking out, choose non-comedogenic products that are not likely to block the pores.

5. Reused face masks

Invest in a couple of masks to have on rotation, as you shouldn’t be wearing the same mask two days in a row. Oil, sweat and makeup may cling to your mask, harbour bacteria and cause breakouts. Washing your mask in the washing machine on a hot cycle should suffice, but use a milder detergent if you are susceptible to breaking out because of harsh products and fragrances.

Skin TLC

As masks are here to stay for a while, here are some tips on how to take care of your skin while braving the outside world with your mask:

  • Wash your face with a gentle foaming cleanser, especially at night after taking off your mask to get rid of any debris on the top layer of the skin.
  • Let your moisturiser and sunscreen soak in completely before putting on your mask and heading out. This will avoid extra friction and pore blocking.
  • If you are prone to acne breakouts, use a treatment that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to help treat the spots.
  • Treat sensitive, dry patches with a fragrance-free barrier cream. 
  • If you are suffering from contact dermatitis or a severe bout of acne that doesn't clear up with home treatment, consult a dermatologist for a more thorough diagnosis and recommendation of specialised treatment. 
  • Do not skip the sunscreen. It might be winter, and you might be covering your face with a mask but that is not enough to block the harmful rays that can cause premature ageing and skin cancer. 

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadeo from Pexels

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