You may have thought masks would soon be a thing of the past. But as the Delta and Gamma Covid-19 variants spread, it's starting to feel like we're back to March of 2020. With masks come something else: mascne, or mask acne, an unfortunate side effect of daily mask-wearing.
You may have noticed an uptick in red bumps in the areas of your face that your mask covers, whether you're someone who regularly gets breakouts or if you have nearly perfect skin. Acne can literally be a pain, but that doesn't mean you should stop wearing a mask. If you treat your skin and clean your face coverings, you should be able to get it under control and eliminate larger breakouts from happening. Everyone's skin responds differently to products and stressors, so go slow and spot test any new, potentially irritating ingredients.
Updated September 2021: We've added more of our favorite mascne-fighting products.
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What Causes Mascne?
Just like regular acne, there are multiple potential causes for mask acne: not washing your mask often enough; washing it with a harsh detergent; irritation caused by your mask materials, or how frequently you have to wear it.
Masks help keep saliva and any other droplets—emitted from breathing, talking, coughing, or sneezing—from getting into the air and potentially transmitting Covid-19 (or other illnesses). That's what we want them to do, but this means that they trap moisture and bacteria inside, touching your skin. "These masks create a seal that prevents moisture from escaping, resulting in a humid environment where acne-causing bacteria is able to thrive," says Dylan Mustapich, an aesthetician at Face Haus in New York City.
Board-certified dermatologist Meghan Feely likens it to acne that athletes often struggle with. "Athletes who wear a helmet may develop acneiform breakouts as dirt, oil, and sweat are trapped in their pores, affording an environment conducive to the growth of bacteria," she says.
The purpose of wearing a mask is to keep the virus from spreading, so if your mask has trapped some, you need to wash it. Washing it also helps prevent that bacteria from infecting your skin. On the other hand, some detergents can irritate your skin. Try a gentle, fragrance-free detergent to see if that helps.
And if you're prone to stress-related breakouts, an international pandemic is surely something to stress about. Try your best to relax.
How to Treat Mascne
We cannot emphasize this enough: You should continue wearing a mask while in public. But if you don't have to be in public, stay home and let your skin breathe.
Invest in a few masks that you can switch out and wash frequently. These are our favorite face masks. Optimally, you should wash them after every use if you're wearing them for extended periods of time. The experts we spoke to agreed that if you're not using a surgical or KN95 mask, 100 percent cotton masks are the way to go, because it's a breathable fabric that's easily washed. Make sure that your reusable mask follows the latest CDC mask guidelines.
Katie Jae, a licensed medical aesthetician in Texas, prefers disposable masks, but that can take a toll on your budget and the environment. Even if you're wearing a disposable one, keep spares on hand to rotate. "It’s a good idea to change the mask throughout the day just so that the bacteria that has been forming doesn’t have a chance to continue to grow and disrupt the skin," she says.
If you typically wear makeup, avoid putting it in the areas the mask is covering. (Now is the perfect time to focus your energy on your winged eyeliner, am I right?!) Keep your face clean and moisturized and don't over-exfoliate. People often think they need to dry out acne, but drying out your skin can actually lead to more breakouts. "Even if you have oily skin, it is vital to keep your skin barrier intact," Jae says. "Moisturized skin will help prevent chafing or rashes."
Wash your face before putting on a mask and after taking it off. "Use gentle foaming cleansers that will remove oil efficiently. If you have acne-prone or extremely oily skin, use a face wash that has salicylic acid so that the excess oil and dead skin can be removed, which can help prevent clogged pores or breakouts," Jae says. "Purchasing a high-frequency device is a great way to kill bacteria, reduce inflammation of the skin, and calm down skin sensitivities."
I tried Skin Gym's high-frequency wand and was a big fan, although I was too rough and broke one of the attachments. So be gentle with the machine (the glass is thin and can cut you if you break it) and with your skin. Start slowly and only use it a few times a week, especially if you're prone to dryness.
A Few Products You Could Try
If you can, see a dermatologist or schedule a virtual consult with an aesthetician to discuss the products best suited for your skin. You may have to try a few things before you find the right treatment plan. These products may help to reduce inflammation and shorten the life span of those pesky zits.
- Basic skincare routine: An easy, basic skincare routine involves cleansing, toning, and moisturizing. If you haven't covered these building blocks yet, they should be the first thing you try before moving on to more specific treatment methods. Look for a set like this one from E.l.f., which includes the basic steps in a bundle that will work for all skin types.
- Pimple patches: These have changed the game. They use hydrocolloids (a dressing that you can also find in some bandages) to draw pus and oil to them. Depending on the size and severity of the pimple, you could put one on at night and wake up with a smooth surface. They'll also prevent you from picking. There's some good news, too: You can wear them all over your face under a mask and no one will ever know. We've used and like Mighty Patch and Starface for regular breakouts, and ZitSticka for those deep, cystic pimples. Cosrx is another good, cheap brand.
- Other targeted treatments: Your dermatologist can prescribe something tailored to your specific acne concerns. Aside from pimple patches, targeting zits with specific ingredients can help bolster your skincare routine. I, Louryn, swear by Sunday Riley U.F.O Oil, which contains tea tree oil and salicylic acid. Others think benzoyl peroxide is the best way to fight flare-ups (but beware, it often stains towels). Different ingredients work best for different people—if an ingredient makes your breakouts worse, especially after using it for a couple of weeks, take a break and then try something else.
- Hydrating moisturizer: Drying out your face could potentially cause more breakouts. Keep your face hydrated with a noncomedogenic hydrating moisturizer. I (Medea) like CeraVe's Moisturizing Cream and La Roche-Posay's Lipikar Balm AP+ for my skin, which tends to be dry and sensitive.
- Ointment: I know it sounds like bad skin care advice to slather a Vaseline-like ointment on your broken out skin, but CeraVe Healing Ointment is highly recommended by aestheticians and has cleared up dry, flakey patches I get. It also seems to shorten the lifespan of my pimples and helps to heal spots when I've given in to the temptation to pick.
- Lip balm: If your lips are dry, and the skin around them is breaking out, balms like this one from Eco Lips will keep your skin hydrated without making them stick to your mask.
- Facial toners: Toners help catch dirt and oils that your cleanser might miss, and they can help balance and replenish your skin. I love the Heritage Store Rosewater Facial Toner; it's cheap, is recommended by professionals, and hydrates so it's not stripping your skin. Witch hazel is another tried-and-true toning method.
- Chemical exfoliant: You don't want to over-exfoliate right now, and you should not use physical exfoliates on your face. But you can try introducing a chemical exfoliant a few times a week (not every day!) to help clear up congested areas. Exfoliants go deeper than some treatments. Paula's Choice 2 Percent BHA Liquid Exfoliant is a popular option, but if you've never used an exfoliant, consult a professional.