As with everything in the past few months — for many, that includes working from home, remote learning, social distancing — we’ve learned to quickly adapt to a new norm. Wearing a mask is no different: The “it” accessory of 2020 (albeit a necessary one) is here for the indefinite future. But like anything new, there are a few kinks to work out: A mask takes up a great deal of facial real estate, and wearing it for prolonged periods can flare up a few skin concerns, namely chafing, acne, and dermatitis. To learn the ins-and-outs of mask-wearing, we talked to dermatologists who offered advice on everything from mask materials and proper hygiene to preventing acne outbreaks.
First off, when you’re considering what type to get or make, the masks being recommended by the CDC for the general public are cloth face coverings (medical masks, like the N95 and surgical ones, are considered critical supplies for healthcare workers). These cloth coverings should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, secured with ties or ear loops — and also should feature multiple layers of fabric. The intention of wearing a mask is to slow the spread of the virus by covering the nose and mouth, and can help protect against passing it on to others, which is especially important if you don’t have symptoms.
Fit is also a crucial aspect of mask selection. You’ll want a good seal against your skin, because gaps in the mask can allow particles to come in and out, making it less effective. A mask with a bendable metal nose clip built inside it will ensure a better fit and it won’t let as much air escape. For men, having a beard or mustache can interfere with the seal, because it could cause the mask to shift, says Papri Sarkar, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. If you’re finding gaps in the ear loop style, look for a mask that has ties that go behind the head, so that you can adjust and tighten, ensuring a better seal and less movement.
A tight wear is essential for staying safe, but that snug closure on your skin can also promote irritation, leading to chafing or a dermatitis reaction. “Assuming you don’t have an allergy to the materials, inflammation is more likely to be from the rubbing and moving as you talk,” notes Kenneth Mark, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and the Hamptons. “The moisture from talking stays there, which can lead to a perioral dermatitis around the mouth.”
For protection, apply a thin layer of a barrier moisturizer across your face where the edges of the mask touch it — this can help reduce the friction. The occlusive formula can also block out moisture, preventing it from settling on your skin. Look for ones with ingredients like petrolatum that can help protect and heal; we like CeraVe® Healing Ointment ($17), a rich balm with ceramides and a moisturizing petrolatum base. If you’re noticing the skin around your mouth is wet after wearing a covering, wash it and pat a few drops of the balm there to protect it.
Another unique way to minimize chafing is by placing a small piece of silicone tape along the bridge of the nose, says Dr. Sarkar. “I’ve been recommending this to my patients because it’s not irritating and can be used to secure the mask, while also preventing air from leaking out,” she adds. This is also good if you’re wearing glasses (recommended to protect eyes, another way that could help block the virus), because less air escaping means the lenses are less likely to fog up. Try pre-cut pieces made with medical grade ingredients that are non-irritating, like Nordstrom® Lingerie Dress Tape ($6).
Of all skin concerns, though, it’s acne — which thrives in a humid environment — that’s more likely to happen after repeated mask-wearing. “Acne starts out with a clogged pore, and wearing a mask facilitates that,” explains Dr. Mark. “Sweat gets trapped under the mask, clogging the pore — which means even if you’re not prone to acne, you can get an outbreak.” To prevent blemishes, he suggests paying more attention than usual to exfoliation, being more diligent about peels, or using microdermabrasion scrubs to clear pores. You can also try washing up with a salicylic acid cleanser, like Neutrogena® Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Fighting Face Wash ($5), after wearing a mask for extended periods of time. Salicylic acid works by sweeping out pores to help keep them clean — which could go a long way when you’re dealing with a sticky mask. For a quick clean-up on the go, wipe your mouth and nose area with a cleansing wipe after removing your face covering.
Keeping your mask clean is essential to not just keep from spreading the virus, but preventing a bacteria build-up that can lead to reactive dermatitis or even infections. After each wear, take it off from the sides, being careful not to touch the front of the mask (where the virus germs live). Immediately, put the covering into the washing machine or hand wash it with hot water and soap if you can’t access a machine. “Ideally, you should have multiple masks that you can label and keep aside for a weekly cycle, so that you don’t have to wash the same one constantly,” says Dr. Sarkar.
And while wiping the material off with an alcohol wipe might be OK for a quick fix, it’s better to wash with soap and water to make sure you remove the virus and bacteria. In general, though, a mask wardrobe might be the best for cleanliness, but having many will cement the covering as a must-have — after all, wearing it can be a chic way to make a statement, safe and fashionable.
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