Is Wearing a Face Mask All Summer Bad for Your Skin?

One dermatologist's advice on avoiding “maskne,” mask-tans and face dandruff

June 12, 2020 7:12 am
Black and white photo of a man's face
Don't make these face-mask mistakes this summer.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Look, no one wants to wear a face mask. But even as states open back up and the urge to forget COVID-19 ever happened becomes almost irresistible, it’s good to remember that wearing a mask in public places is not about you, it’s about keeping other people safe from a disease that has killed more than 115,000 people in the U.S. alone.

That said, if wearing a face mask has proved problematic in late winter and spring, it’s going to get much worse when the sweat, sunscreen and sweltering temperatures of summer come into play. You may have already dealt with an unfortunate bout of maskne (that’s mask acne, for people who aren’t keeping up on the new COVID lingo), but when you’re essentially creating a hot box around half your face, strange skin issues will follow.

To help you save face this summer, literally, we got in touch with Dr. Jaime Davis, Board Certified Dermatologist and Medical Director and CEO of Minnesota’s Uptown Dermatology and SkinSpa, who has already been dealing with these conditions among patients.

What sunscreen pairs best with a face mask? What materials should you avoid when buying one? And what issues should men, a generally dermatologically naive bunch, be aware of? Dr. Davis answered all these questions and more.

What kind of face mask should I wear in summer?

Before even talking about the type of mask, Dr. Davis pointed out that many issues are cropping up due to overuse. “Wear the mask when necessary, but remove it as soon as it is not necessary,” she said. “Try to avoid prolonged stretches of mask wearing.” This falls in line with current CDC guidelines that recommend “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Also, if you have severe breathing issues, it’s important to note that the CDC exempts you from that recommendation. 

In terms of materials, Dr. Davis recommends masks with moisture-venting features, which it should be said does not mean cutting a hole in it. While she says that medical-grade options are the most protective, they’re also the most occlusive (in other words, they provide the tightest seal, which is good for stopping virus transmission but potentially bad for your skin); instead, she recommends homemade alternatives “made from tightly woven soft cotton fabric that has been washed in unscented soap, rinsed well of any residual detergent, and dried without fabric softener.”

I’ve developed a rash from my mask. What is it?

While you shouldn’t self-diagnose a rash or other skin irritation, one issue Dr. Davis has dealt with at her practice that people should be aware of is allergic reactions to face-mask materials. She points specifically to “the metal nose bridge (if nickel is in the alloy) or elastic (rubber allergy) or any textile-specific coatings on the fabric.” The nickel issue will be familiar to people who wear earrings or other jewelry, and may be more of a concern for people wearing medical or medical-style coverings. 

If you think you’re experiencing an allergic skin reaction, be sure to seek out professional help from a dermatologist. Even if you’re nervous about venturing out to a doctor’s office, Dr. Davis notes that her Minneapolis practice has been offering e-visits which have been, in her words, “freaking fantastic!” She notes that insurance is covering the online sessions, care can be delivered quickly and there’s always the potential for an in-person follow-up, so check with your local dermatologist.

How do I avoid and treat maskne? 

Not all acne is the same and it should not be treated the same; the same goes for maskne. Dr. Davis says she’s dealt with both acne rosacea (“inflammatory acne exacerbated by heat and humidity of occlusive masks”) and acne vulgaris (“pimples and plugs from excess oil”) in the current mask-wearing age, but notes people should seek a professional opinion if their acne doesn’t go away. If face wash isn’t part of your regular grooming arsenal, she says to use a mild cleanser like Cetaphil twice a day, which may solve your problem.

What sunscreens go well with masks?

The biggest conversation around sunscreen in recent years has been mineral versus chemical. Basically, chemical sunscreens are the most popular products you’ll find on shelves, available from companies like Banana Boat and Coppertone, but some of them are being banned because they’re unsafe for marine life. Mineral sunscreens are generally considered to be friendlier to oceans and the environment, but in terms of protecting you from skin cancer while wearing a mask, Dr. Davis says you’ll be better off with chemical versions.

“Mineral-based sunscreens sit on top of the skin and could be rubbed off by the mask. Chemical-based sunscreens absorb into the skin and generally provide longer-lasting protection,” she says. “Brands that are generally well tolerated by sensitive skin include Vanicream and Cetaphil.” If you have a favorite brand already, she suggests using SPF 30 or higher for normal daily use. And yes, you should be applying sunscreen on your face every day. However, Dr. Davis also notes that if you’re wearing a snug-fitting or tightly sealed mask, you could develop a sensitivity to the sunscreen.

If you do end up with an unfortunate mask-shaped sunburn, the dermatologist-recommended salve is a cool, moist compress on the burn over a thin layer of 1% Hydrocortisone cream, which is available over the counter at local drugstores.

What other skin issues should I be aware of?

If you’ve got facial hair, you may be having problems with beard folliculitis, which is basically inflammation or infection in the hair follicles, similar to razor bumps. Dr. Davis says men have been experiencing this issue when short whiskers get caught in masks as their facial hair grows out. To avoid it, she advocates for beard commitment: either let it grow out or keep a close shave. “It’s that five o’clock shadow or weekend of not shaving that is the stuff which gets caught and causes folliculitis,” she says.

In a similar vein, the last issue she’s noticed is seborrheic dermatitis, which is a condition that generally leads to dandruff on the scalp but can also manifest in dandruff of the face (yes, 2020 is only getting worse). Thankfully, the solution is generally simple. “People are skipping showers during the pandemic and we’re seeing a lot more dandruff,” Dr. Davis says. So to keep face dandruff at bay just do what she already recommended and wash your face at least once a day.

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