How to keep your face mask from irritating your skin

The more you wear your mask, the more at risk you are for irritation or breakouts.

Mask Credit: Filadendron/Getty Images

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Whether you're an essential worker or someone who has to run necessary errands, if you're out in public during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you're likely wearing a face mask. Not only does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people wear face masks whenever they're around others, some states and companies are even requiring that their residents or employees wear them.

And while face masks can help prevent the spread of the virus, they can also irritate your skin if you're wearing one for an extended period of time. "Having to wear a mask for 13 hours is hard," Kayla F., a nurse in Washington, D.C. says. "It's uncomfortable on my ears and nose and it also chafes my face and has led to a lot of breakouts on my chin and lower cheeks."

To help you stay safe while also keeping your face healthy, we asked a dermatologist along with our own beauty expert for their top tips on preventing (and treating) skin irritation caused by face masks.

How face masks can irritate your skin

Credit: Jevelin/Getty Images

Breakouts can be one side effect of mask use.

Anything that rubs against your face for hours on end is bound to cause some irritation—and face masks are no different. "When it comes to cloth or surgical masks, we are primarily seeing mild skin irritation, mild comedones (clogged pores), and reactions to the fabric itself," Allie McAllister, BSN, FNP-C, DCNP, explains. "While just wearing a mask can cause friction which can be irritating to the skin, the types of materials, dyes, and detergents in the mask can also cause irritation and rashes."

Besides rashes and chafing, face masks can also lead to breakouts. It makes sense when you think about it—your mask is creating a moist, warm environment against your skin, which is perfect for bacteria to thrive. "Breakouts can occur from sweat, dirt, and moisture being trapped under the mask," McAllister says.

How to protect your skin from your face mask

Face Wash
Credit: Getty Images

Always start with a clean face.

For starters, McAllister says you should always thoroughly wash your face before you put on your mask and after you take it off (she likes Cerave Hydrating Facial Cleanser in particular because it's gentle and non-irritating). Then, McAllister recommends, "If you know you’ll be wearing your mask for a long period of time I would suggest applying a thin layer of Aquaphor Healing Ointment to the areas that will come in direct contact with the mask."

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You can also try an anti-chafing balm, like Body Glide's new Face Glide, which claims to form a "dry, invisible barrier" that protects your skin from friction and rubbing without clogging pores. The Original Body Glide is a favorite of Reviewed staffers who run. Apply it on areas where your mask typically rubs against your skin, like the nose, cheeks, chin, or ears.

Keep in mind, too, that according to the CDC, you should wash your face mask "regularly" in the laundry—and McAllister agrees. She suggests using a detergent specifically for sensitive skin that's free of any dyes or perfumes, like All Free & Clear.

Bonus: If you have the luxury of picking and choosing your mask (or your materials), McAllister says the type of fabric can make a big difference in your mask's comfort. She recommends a soft cotton fabric that's more breathable than other alternatives.

How to treat skin irritation caused by face masks

McAllister says once again to start with Aquaphor if you notice any irritation or discomfort. However, she advises, "If the irritation is more severe or will not resolve with Aquaphor, I would suggest applying a hydrocortisone 1% ointment once a day for no longer than a week." And if even that doesn't help, McAllister says to see a dermatology provider (which you can do from home via telemedicine!).

And as for breakouts, our lifestyle writer and beauty guru Jessica Kasparian has a few products she swears by. "If a blemish pops up, I love the Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, which uses isopropyl alcohol to dry up pimples and calamine lotion to soothe," she says, adding, "I also love hydrocolloid patches like the CosRX Acne Pimple Master Patch set. They're clear dots that extract impurities while also creating a protective layer over the pimple so nothing else can irritate it." Jessica also says that she makes sure to focus on her chin and lower face when washing her face since that's the area covered by a mask.

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