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Maskne: How to prevent breakouts and sore, irritated skin from face masks

Updated: Mar 2

Wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19 is mandatory in many countries, including the UK. It's been a crucial step in helping to reduce the rate of infection, but with many of us having to wear face masks for long periods of time, our skin is suffering as a consequence.


"Maskne", or "mask acne" is spots, inflammation, redness, bumps and irritation caused by material rubbing against the skin and trapped sweat, oil and bacteria. The mask's material rubs on the skin and breaks down the skin's barrier, and the moisture and heat combo and a reduction in oxygen stops the skin from functioning normally. Pores become blocked, bacteria gets through the skin's barrier, and inflammation, spots and irritation can occur. In addition to breakouts, mask wearers can also suffer from dry skin and dermatitis on the nose, cheeks, side of the face and behind the ears, which is caused by rubbing and pressure from masks.



What can be done about maskne?


It's really tempting to want to scrub the skin and dry it out when we have breakouts. However, dry, damaged skin has a reduced barrier function, an important part of the skin's job as our largest organ. If the skin gets damaged, all-be-it microscopically, toxins, pollutants, bacteria and other pathogens will get in, and too much water will evaporate out, known as Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL), further drying out the skin. Overly dry skin results in more oil production, creating a vicious circle with breakouts. It's important to maintain a healthy skin barrier with the right moisturisers and other ingredients so that the skin stays hydrated, healthy and resilient.



Here are some important skin care ingredients that will help maskne. You may already have some of these in your skin care arsenal, which is why I've broken it down:


Ceramides

Ceramides are lipids (fat molecules) found naturally in the skin. They help to keep the skin soft and moisturised, and are an essential part of the skin's barrier function, helping to keep bacteria and other pathogens out and hydration in. Ceramides are helpful for treating eczema and psoriasis, and they help to protect the skin from environmental damage and have anti-aging effects too. Applying a product rich in ceramides before wearing a mask will help to protect the skin and reduce dryness and irritation.


Hyaluronic Acid (HA)

Another essential molecule in the skin, Hyaluronic Acid (HA) is naturally produced in our bodies to attract and retain moisture within the joints and the skin. HA binds to water by up to 1000+ times its molecular weight, restoring the skin's moisture levels and plumping lines and wrinkles, smoothing and firming the skin. Topical HA can be found from botanical sources or created synthetically. However, sometimes it is derived from animals, so check the label if a vegan/vegetarian option is important for you. Hyaluronic Acid is available in different molecular weights, determining the level of skin penetration and absorbability; the lower the molecular weight the more easily it is absorbed into the skin and the deeper the skin penetration. Nutraceutical supplements with HA boost the body's hydration from the inside, improving skin, hair, nails, joints and gynaecological menopausal dryness too.


Salicylic Acid / Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

Salicylic Acid is a great ingredient to both treat and prevent breakouts. It exfoliates by dissolving the glue that binds the skin cells together, it also deep cleans pores and removes debris from hair follicles. Salicylic Acid breaks down dirt, dead skin cells and excess oil, and does all this without causing inflammation.


Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Glycolic, malic, lactic, citric, tartaric and mandelic acids are all AHAs. AHAs in skincare come in different strengths and are used in products from over the counter skin care to what I refer to as 'Big Daddy' skin peels, and everything in between. AHAs encourage the exfoliation of skin cells, helping to smooth and soften the skin, correct hyperpigmentation, reduce pore size, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and - you guessed it - helping to treat acne by preventing pores from becoming blocked. Lactic acid has the largest molecules of all the AHAs, which means that it doesn't penetrate the skin very deeply. Lactic acid won't dehydrate the skin, and at low concentrations it will actually help to draw moisture into the skin, making it a good option for dry and sensitive skins. Cleopatra had the right idea, but if you don't have an abundance of sour milk, I have some products you can use instead!


Kojic Acid

Kojic acid comes from mushrooms, and although you'll find it in soy sauce and rice wine, Kojic acid can also be found in skin care due to its ability to inhibit the production of melanin, helping to lighten the skin and control and treat hyperpigmentation and scarring. The brilliant thing about Kojic acid though, is that it has powerful antibacterial, antimicrobial and antibiotic properties, really helping to prevent and treat maskne.