Face masks and coverings require proper cleaning in order to be effective and to keep your skin from getting irritated. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

For months, public health officials have advocated wearing cloth face masks as a way to control the spread of COVID-19. Mask mandates, like the one issued as an executive order in Maine back in May, have gone into effect around the country and there is strong evidence that it’s working to slow the spread of the pandemic.

For some folks, however, the constant mask-wearing is causing an unwanted side effect of facial skin breakouts or rashes. Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engleman is credited for coining the term ‘maskne’ — a mash-up of mask and acne — to describe the condition.

What is maskne?

At its simplest, maskne is a breakout in the area where a face mask is worn.

“People are looking like they have acne under their face masks,” said Dr. Kristopher O’Connell, staff physician at Northern Light Primary Care in Hampden. “I have seen a lot of it and the problem is real.”

The medical term for maskne is acne mechanica, according to Loma Linda University in California. It’s a specific, non-hormonal type of acne caused by long periods of wearing of facial masks.

“If you think about it, you are creating the ideal environment for the bacteria that causes maskne,” O’Connell said. “A warm, moist area that becomes susceptible to irritation and breakouts of red bumps that look like acne.”

Along with creating breakouts, maskne can also make the skin dry, itchy and raw.

Mitigating maskne

So what can you do if you are developing maskne?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends following a consistent gentle skincare routine to help reduce the effects of wearing a face mask.

Kristin Ames, esthetician at About Face in Bangor, said it is important to remove all the oil, sweat and dirt that builds up behind the mask and on the skin on a regular basis.

“Splashing water on your face over the sink will not lift off the debris on your face,” Ames said. “You need to use a washcloth or facial sponge with gentle soap and lukewarm water.”

The face washing routine should include use of a skin toner followed by a moisturizer, Ames said.

To help reduce the breakouts, make sure your face is clean when you put your mask on, and wash it again when you take it off.

Moisturizer not only keeps your skin hydrated, but it can also prevent skin-irritating friction between your skin and the mask. You may need to try a few different moisturizers before finding the one that best works for your particular skin.

Ames noted that relying on products you have long successfully used may not do the trick with maskne. She suggested reaching out to a skin care professional for some guidance in finding the right products for your particular skin chemistry.

The dermatologists at Loma Linda University recommend looking for ones containing ceramides, hyaluronic acid or dimethicone, which provide extra skin protection. Use moisturizers that are non-comedogenic — non-pore-blocking. Avoid scented moisturizers.

Since no one is going to see your lower face anyway, forgo makeup, which can clog pores and promote breakouts under the skin. Not only that, makeup can also stain or soil your mask.

“Giving consideration to not wearing makeup is super important,” Ames said. “But I do encourage hydrating your lips because they rub against the mask and can get irritated.”

You need to take care of your masks and wash them after each use. This prevents the buildup of dirt and oil that creates a lovely breeding ground for the bacteria coming from your nose and mouth. Whether you wash your mask in a washing machine or by hand, use a fragrance-free laundry detergent.

Since friction of the mask on your skin can cause irritation, look for masks made of smoother materials like cotton or polyester blends. A proper mask fit also cuts down on rubbing or friction.

Treating maskne

If you are in the middle of a facial breakout, add a glycolic acid face wash to your pre-mask treatments.

You can also use a barrier cream or spray like petroleum jelly or zinc oxide to help with a skin irritation flare-up. An easy one to use is diaper cream since it’s treating pretty much the same thing — irritated, raw sore skin due to a warm, wet environment.

Keep wearing the mask

Whatever you do, do keep wearing masks when in public.

“I would never tell anyone with maskne to stop wearing a mask,” O’Connell said. “It is the proven way to help stop the spread [of COVID-19] when social distancing is not possible.”

With proper skincare, you should be able to control and even prevent maskne. However, if your skin irritation does not clear up or gets worse, health experts recommend consulting with a dermatologist.

“We are all in this together,” Ames said. “Maskne is just one more piece of the pandemic.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.