Acne is an ongoing struggle for many teens and adults, but wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 can further irritate the skin and cause acne to worsen.
Many people suffer from sensitive skin, and have to be very particular about which materials and products they use on their faces.
Masks are mandatory in public indoor spaces to help people protect themselves and others from the virus. While they are an important safety measure, they can cause a lot of irritation to the skin. Friction between the skin and the mask caused by wearing it for a long period of time can be a big contributor to “maskne”.
“This is acne that appears on sites of friction, pressure, occlusion or rubbing leading to irritation and inflammation of hair follicles,” said Dr. Monica K.Y. Li, a certified dermatologist with the Canadian Dermatology Association.
Moisture from breathing can also be a factor when wearing a mask for a long period of time or reusing the same mask.
“Increased moisture and heat on facial skin also contributes to ‘maskne,’” Li said.
There also has been an increase of people complaining about their acne issues and seeking help from pharmacists.
“More people are coming in with acne or skin issues from masks,” said Hannah Herian, head pharmacist the Shoppers Drug Mart at Albion Mall in Etobicoke, Ont.
According to a 2019 study by News Medical Life Sciences, having acne can lower self-esteem, especially for teens who already deal with many other issues tied to growing up and adulting.
“Knowing that hormones involved in triggering acne are amongst many of the body’s stress responses, I would advocate that self-care during COVID is of immense importance,” said Rhonda Travis, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto .
Acne is a burden to adolescents and in some cases to adults, according to a 2006 study by board certified dermatologist and clinical psychologist Richard G. Fried and dermatologist and a skincare adviser, Amy Wechsler. It shows teens can go through mental health issues caused by acne and acne scarring.
“There is a fantasy of what is the ideal look,” said Dr. Mark Berber, a psychiatrist and medical doctor practicing in Markham, Ont. “During the last few years, things have become more and more [about] looks. It has become much more important now, with social media.”
Since COVID-19 started, many people with acne find masks help them hide their acne. Being insecure about something on one’s face, where people notice, can cause damage to a person’s confidence, according to a study by The Dermatologist.
Li said hygiene can also be a big factor when it comes to acne breakouts and irritation to the skin. Personal hygiene and knowing the types of skincare products to use and avoid can help improve severe breakouts.
As a dermatologist, Li has seen numerous patients with acne, both before and after the pandemic. For milder cases that do not require prescriptions and other professional care, she recommends “general hygiene measures, including cleaning and moisturizing facial skin in the morning and evening, and regularly washing the mask.”
Using a cloth face mask can help with “maskne” breakouts on the face. But according to a 2021 study by John Hopkins Medicine, cloth masks with at least two layers of fabric can protect skin better. Having a mask that can be washed after a day’s use, and having the right skin care routine can also show results in the skin.
“Moisturizing and cleansing the skin using gentle products containing hyaluronic acid and ceramides can help to repair and maintain skin barrier integrity, which can be compromised with irritation and friction from mask-wear, leading to acne breakouts,” Li said.
“If using cloth masks, cotton is a more breathable fabric and is generally good for all skin types and under different conditions of use,” she said.
Although acne is considered a flaw, a 2016 study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine says it is very common and normal, and it usually heals and goes away with time.
Berber said while acne can be self-limiting and damaging to one’s self-esteem, it is not the most important thing in the world.
“[Acne] will go away,” Berber said. “Beauty is only skin-deep. Your personality and character are much more important.”