Thank goodness for masks right now. According to the CDC, face masks are a simple way to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets, the most common method of COVID-19 transmission. And with no end in sight (or confirmed vaccine on the horizon), it’s safe to say mask-wearing is here to stay. It’s a crucial precaution for public health, but it’s not such great news for people with chronic skin.
“Regular use of facial masks can exacerbate skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema,” says Ivy Lee, M.D., a dermatologist at Pasadena Premier Dermatology in Pasadena, CA. Certain fabrics like wool or polyester can trigger eczema flares, and if your mask is dirty, it can cause an infection at the site of broken skin.
Hand washing and sanitizing can also be harmful for inflamed skin, Dr. Lee explains, especially when repeated frequently throughout the day. But at the same time, these safety protocols have never been more necessary. Over 170,000 Americans have died thus far from COVID-19, with 40,000 new cases being reported every single day. This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. Endurance matters. That means dealing with your skin issues in a way you can sustain long-term.
Face the Facts
There are several reasons your skin can get irritated when you wear a mask or wash your hands. Eczema is often exacerbated by irritants like household cleaners, fragrances, fabric, and other personal care products. Adam Friedman, M.D., dermatology professor at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, explains that friction and trapped moisture from the mask can cause a red, itchy rash on anyone – not just those who previously dealt with skin irritation. But for those with a pre-existing skin condition, this might cause a flare in their symptoms: scaly patches, redness, or bumps that resemble acne (cheekily named #maskne in this moment).
When it comes to soap and hand sanitizer, these products are often drying to the skin, Dr. Lee explains. “Hand dermatitis or eczema can result from frequent hand washing, due to the increased frequency and extent of water and soap exposure, or hand sanitization, due to the drying and irritating effects of alcohol or chemicals,” she says. Dr. Friedman explains that using hand sanitizers with a high alcohol content (at least 70%) can seriously worsen skin irritation. This is pretty much unavoidable since the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Maintain That Glow
Is it possible to stay safe and keep your skin clear, even for months on end? The answer (thankfully) is a resounding yes! According to Dr. Friedman, skin protection starts directly at the source: your skin barrier (aka the top layer of skin). “Prevention is the best medicine,” he explains. “We need to protect our biological armor, because when it’s damaged – meaning cracked, dry, and open to the grossness in the world–this can promote inflammation,” causing a flare-up of eczema or psoriasis.
When washing your hands and face, Dr. Friedman recommends a gentle cleanser followed by an oil-free moisturizer while your skin is still damp. You can repeat this moisturizing step during the day as needed. “Removing the mask in the bathroom, dampening the skin, and applying a little moisturizer to the facial skin can help maintain that protective layer,” he says. The same goes for your hand washing routine. “With frequent handwashing or sanitization, applying a moisturizer afterwards can help minimize water loss in the skin,” Dr. Lee says. “Try to apply a heavier hand cream at bedtime to restore moisture in the skin overnight.”
If you haven’t yet seen a dermatologist to help you manage your condition, this might be a good time to do so. Dr. Friedman explains that topical steroids or non-steroidal creams can help soothe more serious irritation, but these are best used under the guidance of a professional.
Next time you’re online shopping for masks, pay attention to the fabric. “I think breathable cotton can help so long as you clean the mask appropriately and don't wash with fragranced detergents,” Dr. Friedman suggests. A June 2020 study in Physics of Fluids tested the effectiveness of different types of masks and found that tight-fitting masks made with closely woven fabric (like cotton) are among the most effective options for blocking respiratory droplets, along with surgical masks.
Dr. Lee notes that good mask hygiene is crucial to keeping your skin looking fresh–even more important than the fabric. Get several masks to rotate so you can wash them after every few wears and keep your moisturizer on hand for when your skin starts feeling itchy. Another item to stash in your handbag? Extra water to rinse off with after applying hand sanitizer. Then, “apply a moisturizer on top to trap said water to enable skin repair from the damaging effects of the 70%+ alcohol.”
The more prepared you can be while out and about, the better. That way, once you take off your mask at the end of the day, you’ll see a clear, healthy face looking back at you in the mirror.