What is Mask Acne and how do you beat it?

Singapore has seen strict enforcement of mask wearing from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an effective weapon against the spread of this disease, however a new phenomenon has been occurring as a result, the dreaded ‘mask acne’.

The term is loosely coined to describe the facial breakouts linked to wearing a mask. The skin changes can affect your self-confidence and if not treated, scarring can be hard to remove.

Here’s more about this annoying condition.

What does mask acne look like?

You may find red painful zits along your jaw, chin and the areas covered by the mask. This can occur even if you have escaped the usual teenage acne! The skin could appear red or peeling in places. Dry cracked lips and chafing behind the ears are other troublesome complaints.

Why does this happen?

A combination of chafing, friction and humidity provides a great breeding ground for bacteria to thrive.

The re-use of masks may not be a good idea as even if they look clean after the first use, they may actually be contaminated by bacteria. Our usual sunscreen or daily make up which worked well for years can suddenly start to become a problem.

The type of mask matters!

Loose fitting masks can cause a rash. Choose a well-fitting mask which is made of a two-layered, soft, breathable cotton material.

Disposable masks work well but change them everyday.

Nylon and other synthetic masks are best avoided as they allow sweat and bacteria, to thrive.

Wash  your re-usable mask every day with soap and water.

Changes to your skin care routine

Use a gentle oil-free cleanser before wearing your mask and after taking it off.  This is especially important after exercise.

Apply a gentle moisturizer to protect the skin and treat minor irritation. A moisturizer containing ceramide, hyaluronic acid or dimethicone is recommended – the latter has a good barrier function.

You may want to choose a gel if you have oily skin prone to acne, a lotion for combination or a cream for dry skin. If wearing an N95 mask, it is advisable to use a moisturizer 30 minutes earlier to avoid affecting its efficacy.

Avoid facial scrubs that can strip the skin of its protective barrier.

Skip the creamy foundation or concealer and choose a hypoallergenic non-comedogenic preparation which is unlikely to clog pores, or avoid make up altogether. Mineral-based make up has been suggested as an alternative by some dermatologists.

How can I treat these breakouts?

Continue any skin treatment that you were on before so that the skin stays in good condition.

Minor chafing or irritated areas may be soothed by petroleum jelly, paw paw butter or some coconut oil.

An over-the-counter salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide-based skin preparation may stop bacteria from growing on the skin and can be applied on the spots.

However if these are causing more irritation, it is best to see your family doctor. They may decide to prescribe an antibiotic gel or cream to clear up the bacteria causing the spots. Rarely, a course of oral antibiotics is needed if the creams aren’t working or if there are signs of scarring seen due to a deeper skin infection.

Retinol-based preparations similar to those used for acne may be considered by your doctor. Again, these can be irritant to the skin and not suited for everyone. If you use these already for acne, keep your skin moisturized and avoid chafing with a properly fitted mask.

Any other tips?

Do not stop treatment of your skin for a pre-existing problem as you want the skin to be in the best possible condition.

Short breaks from your mask for a few minutes every 4 hours are advisable to allow the skin to recover. This should be done in isolation and in a safe location.

A good diet to provide protein, good fats and other nutrients such as B vitamins and zinc can support skin recovery. Finally, do not forget to stay well hydrated.

Dr Charu Narayanan is a UK trained doctor based in IMC Katong. Dr Charu has a Diploma in Practical Dermatology and approaches disease in a holistic fashion and places emphasis on prevention
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