Guidelines for stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus have included stay-at-home orders, social distancing and, of course, wearing protective masks when out in public. But those masks can cause skin irritations and acne outbreaks, according to a dermatologist at UT Health San Antonio.

Sandra Osswald, MD
Sandra Osswald, MD, chief of the Division of Dermatology in the Department of Medicine

“We’re all using masks more than we ever have before,” said Sandra Osswald, MD, chief of the Division of Dermatology in the Department of Medicine. And since it’s important to follow the recommendations on mask wear, she added, it’s important to do your best to prevent any damage to the skin.

“The skin everywhere is a wonderful barrier to elements,” Dr. Osswald said. “However, friction and chronic rubbing and even sweat under the mask can cause the skin to break down. And you get the redness and the irritation, and sometimes burning and itching” called contact dermatitis.

The masks may also cause the worsening of a primary condition, she added, such as rosacea, an inflammatory condition of the skin, or acne.

Dr. Osswald recommended avoiding face mask fabrics that are rough. An alternative is adding an inner layer to the part that touches the skin. It should be of a lighter material, such as cotton, she said. That would guard against irritation, she added, and has the added bonus of absorbing moisture.

“You also want to make sure your mask is cleansed,” Dr. Osswald said. “If you’re using a fabric mask, make sure you have several so you can wash them frequently and they can be rotated. You may want to avoid fragrances and even fabric softeners and such when you’re cleansing the mask.”

Using a moisturizer or cream (again, without fragrances) will mitigate any irritation caused by the mask. “But you want to make sure that the moisturizer, if you are prone to acne, is oil free, or as we call it, non-comedogenic, meaning it will not clog your pores,” Dr. Osswald said. “And you may also want to avoid foundations and heavy makeup if you’re acne prone.”

Again, having an absorbent inner layer can help prevent acne breakouts.

And never scrub your skin, she urged. “At the end of day, gently wash your face, pat it dry, then apply moisturizer again. That will help protect your skin from long-term mask wear.”