I was sweating uncomfortably under my mask after just a short train journey; at lunch in a restaurant, I gazed with a mix of pity and wonder at staff, rushing around in face coverings between the hot kitchen and crowded tables. No wonder the skin complaints caused by the now-mandatory wearing of masks have become so common as to coin a name – “maskne”.
Mask wearing is a vital step to returning to ‘normal’ in the Covid-19 era, but it doesn’t come without its problems,” says Dr Sophie Shotter, aesthetic practitioner and spokesman for Swedish skin-tech brand Foreo.
“Our breath is warm and moist; every time we exhale into our masks, this humid air is trapped within them.”
Add to this saliva: it’s the very substance we are trying not to share with bystanders, but even without the added risk of Covid-19, human saliva is teeming with bacteria (more per square inch than a loo seat, Dr Shotter cheerfully points out).
When it’s contained within your mask and concentrated in areas – the nose and chin, which often tend to be troublesome anyway – it’s small wonder that “mask breakouts” are currently one of the most frequently asked about dermatological problems. “Stress is also a very common trigger for breakouts, and most of us have lived through more stress with this pandemic than ever before,” points out Dr Shotter. “Whether it’s anxiety around job security and finances, the health of loved ones, lack of social interaction or being stuck in an unhappy household, it’s safe to say that no one has sailed through this time stress-free.”
Although mask-wearing may be a relatively new phenomenon – here at least – the issues arising from wearing things in proximity to the skin have long been recognised, especially by those who have to use protective gear for sport or work.
Acne mechanica, as it’s known, differs from the usual breakout in terms of being triggered by external disturbance rather than hormonal fluctuations: the combination of heat, friction and bacteria can create a fertile breeding ground for skin complaints.
Think Lycra-clad bike-buttocks, helmeted heads, strapped chins and rucksack-bearing backs: basically anything that sits close to the skin and traps heat and sweat beneath it can cause acne mechanica. Violinists may even experience it on the chin where they support their instrument.
Something that does little to help the situation is the sense that it’s somehow vacuous or self-indulgent to care about such “superficial” problems when the broader picture – economic hardship and loss of life, for starters – is so much more compelling.
Makeup artist and beauty journalist Madeleine Spencer has been on the receiving end of such attitudes. Accused, on social media, of selfishness for trying to maintain some semblance of normality for her own wellbeing, she points out that “if you can do something that makes you feel better at a time that is unquestionably difficult for everyone, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that”.
Dr Shotter agrees, adding: “We are spending unprecedented amounts of time looking at ourselves on digital communication platforms like Zoom. In a normal meeting we’d be looking at our colleagues, whereas now we spend a fair chunk of each working day staring at our own faces. Spots are a common driver of anxiety and depression anyway, but at present, our self-awareness makes this even more acute.”
With mounting concerns over increased litter and improperly disposed-of PPE, it’s galling, too, that some of the worthwhile steps we might take to keep the impact of our new, Covid-induced, lifestyles in check can easily be part of other problems. Disposable masks minimise some of the issues around bacteria and personal hygiene, but come with other eco-issues.
However, regularly changing your mask does not preclude the use of fabric.
Step one is to clean your mask every day; ideally, have a stash of them so that you’re not caught short. Treat them, essentially, like underwear: don’t double up on wears, and don’t think that turning them inside out is a shortcut to hygiene.
“Also,” says Spencer, “consider spraying the inside of your mask each time you remove it with an antimicrobial spray, like Clinisept or Natrasan. Make sure, too, that your mask fits you well, so that you’re not constantly putting your hands to your face to adjust it – and opt for one made from a breathable material like cotton or silk.” Hydration should also be maintained, as it will help the skin to repair itself: use a moisturiser that will create a lubricating barrier and help the skin to heal.
Dr Shotter also recommends minimising makeup: not only will many products block pores and encourage spot formation but this, combined with the lack of ventilation under the mask, could be a recipe for skin disaster – with, of course, the temptation to apply more foundation to conceal breakouts.
Ideally, users should go makeup free under the mask and simply emphasise the eyes: this is, after all, where attention is likely to be focused.
Think about reassessing your skincare, too, says Dr Shotter: scrubs, for example, could potentially increase irritation to skin that’s already under stress. “Not all acneic skin needs aggressive products; in fact, using these could even risk making the irritation under the mask worse,” she says. “Instead, make sure that you have a great deep-cleansing regime at the start and end of the day, and focus on healing products that will help support healthier barrier function.”