It’s time to address the acne inducing elephant in the room. The time we spend wearing face masks is primetime for bacteria to pitch a tent on our faces, and by the looks of it, our campsites will be open until we’ve solved this whole Covid-19 issue.
We all know how important wearing masks are to prevent the spread of airborne diseases, some more than others admittedly, but some of us are experiencing bad acne in the form of blackheads, pimples on our chins, inside our noses, and on our cheeks.
It happened to me seemingly overnight, months after having moved back into New York City, where the only thing rampant here are New Yorkers wearing face masks.
My cystic acne had become severe; I spent the majority of my birthday popping blackheads. Weeks on end, it became worse and worse, and the acne seemed to form exclusively in the areas in which my mask would cover.
It was then I would Google my symptoms and find that I was not alone..
What skincare culture (including the Washington Post, CNN, and New York Times) is referring to as “Maskne”, or acne mechanica, is the multitude of resulting symptoms due to the environment in which prolonged wearing of masks and facial equipment is known to cause.
You might ask yourself - “I’ve never experienced acne in my entire life; why is this happening to me all of a sudden?”
Acne Mechanica doesn’t discriminate, and neither does bacteria. You’d be surprised to know that the acne that’s growing on your face isn’t necessarily due to dirty masks, but rather it’s due to the humid and sticky environment that your breath creates when encapsulated in your mask.
This environment is an absolute breeding ground for bacteria, thus leading to increased pimple breakouts and severe, cystic acne.
This was strange to me, mostly because my exposure to the outside world has been quite limited compared to many, reserving my mask for hour long workouts and dog walks.
Studies have shown that the duration of exposure to mask wearing doesn’t correlate with increased severity in acne. This means that someone who wears a mask for an hour is equally prone to the same acne as someone who wears the mask for a whole day.
How can we deduce that what we are experiencing is Acne Mechanica?
Severe acne breakouts aren’t the only symptoms of prolonged mask wearing. Aside from acne, this acne bearing environment makes us more prone to Folliculitis, which is the yeast infection of our hair follicles, aka the pores of our skin.
Even more so, due to the prolonged occlusion from mask wearing, heat and sweat can cause the skin to become dry, itchy and raw.
This can result in your skin becoming prone to sensitivity, redness, dark marks, and further breakdown of your skin’s protective layers; not to mention possible flare ups of rosacea, a truly unfavorable skin condition that results in itchy red bumps.
Unfortunately, upon my discovery of my own mask induced acne, my breakouts had reached the point of no return. Assuming I had caught it earlier, and now better prepared for the future, here are the ways in which we can mitigate the effects of this bacteria laden bonanza.
Use a Lighter Moisturizer!
There’s a good chance that the moisturizer you’re using is too thick and is actually heightening the acne atrocities of Acne Mechanica. Not to worry, there are lighter, oil free moisturizers (and serums to be particular) to consider swapping with in order to build your skin’s protective layers without compromising your overall acne free, mask wearing lifestyle.
Keeping your skin moisturized is the name of the game. If you fall short on this, your skin layers will be decimated.
Cleanse with Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid after prolonged mask wearing!
It’s recommended to cleanse with one of these ingredients immediately after prolonged mask wearing to help mitigate the effects of severe and bad acne; which you should keep applied on for +2 minutes before rinsing off in lukewarm water.
In particular, Benzoyl Peroxide is an absolute workhorse; not only does it exfoliate excess oil and dead skin cells, it’s also one of the best ingredients for killing acne causing bacteria beneath the skin. The downside is that it can be quite intense for certain skin types, leaving to dryness and irritation. Start slow with a low percentage Benzoyl Peroxide cleanser (2.5%-10%).
Another antibacterial contender is Salicylic Acid; a brilliant oil-soluble Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) that is lightweight enough to penetrate our skin more effectively than other exfoliating acids (looking at you Glycolic Acid, you dirty AHA). Salicylic acid is a highly efficient, keratin dissolving ingredient, and can be quite effective in low levels of concentration.
Unlike Peptides, the molecular weight of Salicylic Acid and it’s structure allows it to penetrate the deepest levels of our skin.
Salicylic Acid may be considered safe for all skin types, though it may remove too much oil from your skin, resulting in dryness and irritation. I’d recommend starting with a Salicylic Facial Cleanser (.5%-2%), cleansing twice a day.
Limit your face’s exposure to makeup!
As you know, if you’ve tuned in to the first episode of our podcast Project Aeronaut, we’re not against applying makeup. In fact, I highly encourage men to mask unwanted blemishes with a light application of foundation and concealer. However, when it comes to severe acne due to mask wearing, makeup in that environment can actually clog pores more than usual, and amplify your acne from moderate to severe.
If you’re going to use makeup, make sure you’re staying away from oil based cosmetics, and cleansing your face as soon as you can!
Wear the right mask and recycle/wash your masks more frequently!
Simply enough, find yourself a soft and breathable fabric to serve as your mask; cotton would do the trick here. This will keep the friction of your skin and mask to a minimum, allowing more humidity control in the process. Though dirty masks aren’t the main agitators of Acne Mechanica, it’s best practice to constantly recycle your masks and keep them laundered like Jason Bateman’s Ozark businesses.
Implement ingredients to combat Acne Mechanica’s side effects.
Though it’s best practice to keep it simple with your skincare routine during these trying times, there are some ingredients lightweight and beneficial enough in mitigating the harsh side effects.
Niacinamide and Glycolic Acid (not together) are great examples of finding aid in ingredients. Niacinamide is a Vitamin B derivative, helping reduce irritation and redness. Glycolic Acid is an AHA, and can be used as an amazing exfoliant.
For those of you experiencing severe acne, endless blackheads, pimples, cystic acne, and/or folliculitis, do yourself a favor.
Set yourself up to win, and play the long game here. Our skin will truly appreciate us for it.
I’m happy you asked, Benzoyl Peroxide tends to be quite irritating on my skin. I’ve personally limited my exposure with Benzoyl Peroxide (every two days instead of daily) to a salicylic cleanser, which tends to be much more mild for my skin.
If either ingredient is too taxing, it could be a matter of mitigation treatment. I’d suggest Clindamycin Phosphate, I personally use it as a topical gel at 1%. It’s a great antibiotic and helps reduce my acne legions and growth of bacteria while wearing a mask. That way, there isn’t much bacteria left to cleanse and you don’t have to go too overboard!
We actually spoke in length about my acne from mask wearing in episode 2 of our podcast Project Aeronaut :)
Some great info and practical advice here, thank you! I wonder what you’d suggest for those who’s skin is too sensitive for Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid? :)