Mask up without breaking out. Here’s how to prevent pandemic acne.

Yes, maskne is real—and we hate it.
Person looking at mirror
Maskne is preventable and treatable. And no, it's not excuse to not wear a mask. Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Masks are an effective and easy way to protect ourselves and each other from COVID-19. Wearing one when you’re out and about is critical to fighting the pandemic. But because they rest directly on your skin, they can wreak havoc on your beautiful face. Ok, let’s talk about maskne.

This dermatological condition—a portmanteau of “mask” and “acne”—affects people of all ages and skin types, regardless of whether they have a history of skin irritation. It also doesn’t matter whether you wear masks for hours at a time or a couple minutes a day. Maskne is definitely not a reason to stop wearing masks whenever you’re unable to socially distance yourself, but it can be uncomfortable and permanently mark your skin.

Understanding how to prevent and treat it, while managing conditions that might make it worse—like cold winter air—will help you avoid turning your face into a constant reminder of the trainwreck that has been 2020.

What is maskne?

You get acne when dead skin cells, sebum (oil produced naturally by your skin), or bacteria clog your pores, resulting in blemishes such as blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, or cysts. There are different kinds of acne depending on what causes the breakouts—it can be genetic, hormonal, or even stress-related. Maskne is a particular type called acne mechanica, which results from friction and pressure.

“It’s very common in athletes who play football, lacrosse, or any kind of discipline where wearing padding is required,” says Dr. Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University’s School of Medicine.

Generally, your skin does a good job shedding sebum and dead cells. However, when a mask constantly rubs against your skin, it’ll prevent the natural elimination of gunk, while also literally smearing it around your face and stuffing it into your pores. If you have sensitive or dry skin, this continuous friction may cause irritation or chafing, which eliminates the natural barrier of oil that protects your skin, making it even more vulnerable to clogged pores. The particular and… rather tropical… environment inside your mask doesn’t help either.

“There’s a perfect milieu of moisture, trapped dirt, sweat, saliva, and humidity that makes it easier for acne to thrive,” says Gohara. “There’s nothing specific about each of these factors, but when they work in tandem, maskne appears.”

How to prevent maskne

Exfoliating can help keep gunk at bay—but only when done right. Cottonbro / Pexels

If you’ve ever had a breakout, you know that treating it takes time and effort. To fight maskne, it’ll be easier to simply prevent it.

Choose your mask wisely

The right mask balances a snug fit with a material that lets you and your skin breathe, while also catching possibly-COVID-infected droplets.

Gohara recommends natural fabrics that are densely woven and 100 percent cotton or silk for acne avoidance—the latter will also help prevent chafing if you have sensitive skin.

There are no studies yet supporting the claim that wearing natural fibers has any effect on maskne, but Dr. Carolyn Jacob, founder and director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology, says she’d “rather be safe” and also recommends masks made from this type of material.

Avoid synthetic fibers as they usually don’t breathe as well. If they’re stretchy, they also won’t be as effective at preventing you from potentially spreading the novel coronavirus.

Wash your mask and your face

You should be washing your hands thoroughly and constantly, and you should do the same with your face before and after you wear a mask. But please, don’t use the same soap—the skin on your face is definitely not as thick and strong as the skin on your hands, so you should not treat them the same. For your face, go for a gentle, moisturizing cleanser and lukewarm water to eliminate dirt particles, excess oil, and dead skin cells.

Keep in mind that washing your face too often may actually deteriorate the natural protective barrier on your skin. So if you’re already lathering up those rosy cheeks once or twice a day as part of your skincare routine, make sure you apply a moisturizer made for your skin type afterward—heavier creams for dry skin, lighter gel-based lotions for oily skin.

In the winter, moisturizing is extremely important, as your skin may be drier and more sensitive than it normally is due to cold air and indoor heating. If you feel your skin is particularly tight after a gentle wash, it might be a good idea to go for a thicker face cream rather than your usual lotion. Thicker formulas will help you retain moisture and prevent irritation and chafing.

But washing your face will do nothing if you continue to wear the same gunk-ridden mask over and over again. After each wear, it’s crucial to wash your reusable face covering using a delicate soap or detergent, says Gohara—you can do so by hand or with the rest of your laundry.

Another good, albeit not-so-eco-friendly alternative, is to use disposable masks. This might be a good solution if you don’t have easy access to a washing machine or lack the space to let your masks hang dry.

Some additional do’s and don’ts

Keeping your face constantly hydrated will help you protect it against friction, but putting several layers of products on your face could also clog your pores. Instead of applying face cream or lotion beneath your sunscreen—which, as a reminder, you should wear every day—go for a product that has built-in SPF 30 or higher, or opt for a powdered sunscreen that won’t obstruct your pores and will help regulate moisture.

To that same effect, it’s a good idea to forgo any kind of makeup—especially high coverage, liquid foundations—as doing so will give you one less thing to worry about clogging your pores. If you absolutely want (or have) to, Jacob recommends lighter makeup formats like pressed powders.

Finally, helping your skin cells with their natural turnover can help you reduce the amount of dirt that accumulates on the inside of your mask. Gohara is emphatic: “It’s only helpful if it’s done the right way. Scrubbing is for floors, not for faces, so it’s not a good idea to disturb your natural skin barrier.”

There’s a wide range of products for chemical exfoliation, from mild acids for sensitive skins to more abrasive compounds. The easiest way to find the right one for you is to try them by doing a patch test as indicated by the manufacturer. If any sort of irritation appears, stop using it.

But no matter the product you end up choosing, it’s important to carefully follow the instructions. Ignoring them or slacking off could seriously damage your skin. It is particularly crucial that you don’t leave the product on for longer than indicated, and when you find the right exfoliator, don’t overuse it. Doing it more than once or twice a week won’t allow your skin to regenerate your protective barrier fast enough, leaving you exposed to breakouts and even chemical burns.

Fighting maskne and knowing when to ask for help

Person with hand mirror
We know it’s hard to resist, but whatever you do, do not pop that zit. Maksim Goncharenok / Pexels

The pandemic has now lasted more than 10 months, so it’s likely that you’ve already experienced a maskne breakout. As with any kind of acne, the first and most important rule is simple: no picking, no popping. This will only make things worse, and it can leave permanent marks on your skin.

If you see some zits, take a close look at your skin so you can identify what kind of acne you have. You may treat regular blemishes such as blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples with over-the-counter products.

“You should use medications to decrease inflammation such as benzoyl peroxide, retinols, or retinoids,” says Jacob. For oily skins she recommends cleansers with salicylic acid, though these may be too harsh for patients with dry or sensitive skin. If that’s you, consider an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) wash and a retinol, she says.

When using your products, remember to follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely and stop if you see further breakouts or irritation.

But if you have cystic acne—painful bumps under your skin—you’ll want to consult a professional, says Gohara. Dermatologists are seeing patients through video chats, so it’s easy to get the help you need.

Whatever kind of breakout you have, or treatment you follow, she also recommends patience. Skin takes 28 days to fully regenerate from the bottom layer to the top, and some acne medications take their sweet time in yielding any visible results. Being consistent with both treatment and preventive measures is key, she says.

Jacob is even more cautious: “Treatments will take two to three months to start helping and pink spots take longer to fade—up to six to eight months, sometimes. So get it under control as soon as possible to prevent those marks.”