Let’s face it: We’re going to be wearing cloth face masks for a while. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending that people wear face masks in public places where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
While experts agree on the importance of wearing masks, as it can help slow the spread of Covid-19, there are downsides for some people, especially those who must keep them on during full workdays or anyone with underlying skin conditions (e.g., acne or rosacea).
Adam Friedman, a professor of dermatology a the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, says he’s seen an uptick in skin irritation — from inflammation with angry red rashes to tiny clusters of pimples around the nose and mouth — due to face coverings.
“When you blend together trapped breath, sweat and oil, you end up with a hot and moist environment under your mask. This often leads to greater risk of irritation,” Friedman tells CNBC Make It.
Experts suggest doing these five things to keep your skin healthy, clean and protected when wearing face masks:
1. Choose soft, natural and breathable material
Once hard to find, cloth face masks can now be easily purchased from a variety of places online. But you shouldn’t just buy just any “attractive-looking” mask, says Noelani E. Gonzalez, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai West in New York.
“Choose a tight, secure fit with tightly woven fabric,” she tells CNBC Make It. “You basically want something soft, natural and breathable — like 100% cotton. A mask-making tutorial on the CDC’s website also suggests using cotton (e.g., from sheets or a T-shirt).
“Avoid synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon and rayon,” says Gonzalez. “These are more likely to make you sweat, which will dampen the fabric and, in turn, may cause irritation.”
2. Pinpoint the cause of irritation
Often, rashes can be caused by something in or on your mask, as opposed to friction and trapped moisture.
“Some people may be allergic to adhesives, dyes or even the detergent they use to wash their cotton mask,” says Gonzalez. If you start experiencing irritation, she advises consulting with your dermatologist before rushing to get some random, different kind of mask.
Can’t immediately get in touch with your doctor? There are a few ways to do your own detective work in the meantime. “If the rash is on the tip of your nose, it might be because of the adhesive strip,” according to Gonzales. (Some cloth masks have a strip on the inside to hold the mask in place.) If it’s around your ears, it might be from the material of the ear straps.
“Many detergents contain chemicals that can be harmful to the skin,” she says. “So if the entire area covered by the mask on your face is irritated, it could likely be the soap you’re using.”
She recommends a “product for sensitive skin — without any dyes and scents, such as All Free Clear.” It may also help to “run an extra rinse cycle to get rid of any detergent buildup.”
3. Create a skin barrier with moisturizer
Putting moisturizer on your face throughout the day is the best way to decrease friction between the skin and mask.
“When your face is abraded by friction, the top layer of your skin releases water. As a result, your skin loses its natural moisture, while also becoming a less effective protective barrier against the mask,” explains Friedman. “You’ll start to see dry, cracked skin that then evolves into red inflammation.”
He recommends applying an oil-free moisturizer about every two hours to dampen the skin. Creams from brands like CeraVe hydrate the skin well and provide skin-barrier replenishment. Non-comedogenic products are also great because they contain ingredients that won’t clog pores or cause acne flare-ups, he says.
The advice is similar for hands, which often becomes dry over time from constant washing. According to Dawn Davis, a dermatologist with the Mayo Clinic, if your hands get severely dry and flaky, it’s a good idea to pat them dry with linen or cotton (which is less abrasive than a paper towel) after washing.
If moisturizing with lotion alone doesn’t work, she suggests adding on thick ointment, like petroleum jelly (many dermatologists recommend Aquaphor Healing Ointment). Then, cover each hand with a cotton sock overnight to lock in extra moisture.
4. Keep your skin clean
Less is more when it comes to cleansing your face, so avoid using any strong face soaps or exfoliators, when possible.
Friedman suggests sticking to gentle and simple formulas that are more calming to the skin. “Wash your face before and after wearing a face covering. Don’t forget to apply moisturizer after washing.”
If your dermatologist has you on any specific medication or face product, don’t stop using them. “Continuing your regimen for acne, rosacea or any other skin condition will keep your skin as healthy as possible and protect against any exacerbation caused by face masks,” he says.
Lastly, this is the time to pause your beauty routine and skip the foundation and concealer. “When you wear makeup under a mask, the increased humidity on your skin can lead to clogged pores and breakouts,” Gonzales explains. “Not wearing makeup will help your skin breathe better.”
5. Stay in touch with your dermatologist
We should all be keeping up with our dermatologist checkups, but it may be necessary to consult with your doctor more than once a year. (Many are now seeing patients virtually through video conferencing apps).
“If you develop an irritation and it doesn’t get better after a few days of using an over-the-counter cortisone cream [to help with a rash or redness] and/or moisturizer, check in with your doctor to see what’s going on,” Gonzalez advises.
Denise Mann, M.S., is a consumer health researcher. Her work has been featured in HealthDay, Reader’s Digest, MedicineNet, Everyday Health and the Dallas Morning News, among many others.