Now that face masks are an everyday accessory, acne around the mouth has become increasingly common. Dermatologists tell PEOPLE what to do about it

By Kaitlyn Frey
July 16, 2020 12:45 PM
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Wearing protective face masks and coverings quickly became the new norm to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and it continues to be a crucial step for all Americans in the fight against COVID 19. But with the new accessory comes a new pesky skincare concern that's been dubbed by the internet as "maskne" — acne breakouts that cluster around the mouth underneath the face mask.

"I am seeing a lot of patients whose acne has been flaring over the past few months. And it’s not just acne but also rosacea, perioral dermatitis and eczema," says N.Y.C.-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein, who is even experiencing the annoying flare-ups from wearing a mask herself.

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler also noticed an uptick in patients experiencing acne in her N.Y.C. office during the coronavirus pandemic. "Wearing a mask all day creates heat and humidity that, when mixed with the bacteria we breathe out in the mask, can easily result in clogged pores and acne," she says.

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But there are other factors that can be contributing to acne around the mouth area. "Hormones play a major role in breakouts," Dr. Marchbein says. "Cortisol is the hormone which increases in times of stress or lack of sleep, and it can trigger acne by stimulating sebaceous glands. And boy, are we all stressed right now! So that is definitely contributing further to breakouts." Wexler notes that a recent change in hormonal birth control could also lead to this issue.

So what can be done to prevent and treat these annoying flare-ups? Read on for these experts' tips about how to keep breakouts at bay as you continue to be safe with a face mask.

Choose the Right Mask

The material of your mask might be causing more harm than you might think. "The rough texture and friction from the cloth itself can cause irritation," says Dr. Wexler. "That can lead to to breakdown of the barrier function and subsequent acne flares."

Instead, try to select a mask made from soft, breathable cotton so you won't sweat as much underneath it. Or even splurge on a satin or silk one which won't irritate the skin. Also consider the fit of your mask — the tighter it is, the more likely acne will occur.

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"Make sure to wash the masks often after every single use, like you would your underwear! This way they won't accumulate sweat, dirt and bacteria which could cause more breakouts," Dr. Marchbein says.

Use a Gentle Cleanser

Dr. Wexler recommends thoroughly washing your face both before and after wearing a face covering. To ensure you don't strip the skin, select cleansers made with gentle surfactants which protect your natural moisture barrier while still getting the job done. Don't forget to wash before bed, too.

Switch to Soothing Creams

Look for rich creams with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides and niacinamide to create a barrier between your face and the mask, says Dr. Wexler.

Even though the lower half of your face will be covered by the mask, protection from the sun is still imperative, so make sure apply at least SPF 30 in the morning too, adds Dr. Marchbein.

Treat Acne in Moderation

As much as you may be tempted to try multiple anti-acne remedies in the hope of a solution, less is more when it comes to these powerful topical treatments.

"Do not over-wash, over-scrub or over-use acne products. You will risk more irritation and inflammation," explains Dr. Marchbein.

For mild cases of acne, she recommends an over-the-counter adapalene gel (like Differin's 0.1% treatment) applied only three times a week so you don't get too irritated.

Then to spot-treat, Dr. Marchbein suggests hydrocolloid adhesive stickers, like Peace Out Skincare's Acne Dots, to minimize a blemish for people who have extra-sensitive skin. "They contain active ingredients like salicylic acid which are delivered to the pimple while it’s in place," she explains. "By occluding the pimple, the actives penetrate the skin even deeper, allowing them to potentially work better."

Just be sure that a cleanser, serum or spot treatment contains a lower dose of salicylic acid (anything around 2% is on the higher end). "The biggest mistake is over-drying your skin," Dr. Wexler says. "If lesions don't improve with a spot treatment in one or two days, consult your physician for another recommendation."

If salicylic acid doesn't work for your breakout, Dr. Marchbein says benzoyl peroxide is a good alternative ingredient to look for in products (like the PanOxyl Acne 10% Wash or La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment).

She adds: "Also, do not pop or squeeze a pimple! That is adding insult to injury by causing higher risk for scarring and hyperpigmentation."

Let Your Skin Breathe

As much as wearing makeup can be a fun way to express your personality, when you experience a flare-up it's best to skip complexion products like foundation and concealer. "It can really exacerbate maskne since cosmetics easily clog pores," Dr. Wexler says.

Draw attention to your eyes using makeup like mascara, eyeliner and shadow because ultimately, foundation will probably rub away.

"The mask is likely to remove makeup as it rubs against the skin, and that makeup can also cause further occlusion of oil glands and pores potentially making breakouts worse," says Dr. Marchbein.

Reconsider Your Diet

If all else fails, think about what you're eating because that can contribute to breakouts too. "Acne has been associated with high-glycemic index foods and drinks (which are high in sugar like iced teas and sodas)," says Dr. Marchbein. "Whey protein and certain milk products can also lead to flare-ups, so try avoiding these products right now to see if it makes a difference."

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