What To Do If a Surgical Mask Irritates Your Skin, According to a Derm

face mask virus

 Tanya Akim

Well-before local officials began issuing face mask directives, photos of hospital workers and first responders with facial bruising caused by long, continuous hours of wearing a mask were showing up on our news feeds.

On April 2nd, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti urged the 4 million of us living in the City of Angels to wear a non-medical face mask, or even a “tucked in bandana”, when going outside. The directive makes everyone look like a cat burglar about to hold up a bakery, and while it’s certainly an important thing for everyone to do to maintain public health, it’s wreaking absolute havoc on my skin. Most people have probably figured it out by now: wearing a fabric mouth and nose covering sucks. It’s uncomfortable, I can’t breathe well, and my face gets very sweaty, no matter what material the face mask is made of.

Slowly but surely, I’ve noticed my skin breaking out in atypical areas, like my cheeks and the bridge of my nose. I referenced my face-mapping guide, which suggested my breakouts were due to alcohol intake and smoking. I could definitely rule those out, because I haven’t done either of those things in weeks. I realized the breakouts probably weren’t due to an internal or systemic cause, but something topical. I wasn’t trying any abnormal creams, and I wasn’t wearing any makeup in my living room. Then I realized the only difference in my routine (aside from crying everyday) was that I was wearing a mask on walks and grocery store runs.

Is it just my imagination that the use of a medical mask was making me break out? A dermatologist says no. There’s even a subreddit on SkincareAddiction about a surgeon breaking out from mask-wearing in the OR.

“Anything occlusive can cause acne,” Dr. Peter Kopelson, a celeb-favorite dermatologist in Beverly Hills, tells me over the phone. “So, it’s highly possible that people can break out from [wearing a mask]. And especially people with perioral dermatitis may notice flare-ups.”  

And if quarantine, global unemployment, an existential threat to mankind, and influencers’ online isolation antics weren’t terrible enough, nasty skin breakouts are the last straw in the ring of fire for me. Luckily, this is something I feel like we actually can have control over, unlike the other horrors happening in the world right now.  I've managed to get my breakout under control, thanks to some advice from Dr. Kopelson, esthetician Renee Rouleau, and some key skincare products—keep scrolling to see them all.

Skinceuticals Glycolic Renewal Cleanser $38.00

1. Cleanse Gently

For irritation prevention, Dr. Kopelson recommends washing your face with a very gentle cleanser—you can also consider an acid-based wash to clear out the breakout bacteria. He suggests using cleansers with alpha or beta hydroxy acids, like glycolic or salicylic, which are good for acne (though should be avoided if you’re dealing with perioral dermatitis).

“A mild cleanser like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser is great to minimize irritation,” he says. “Pre-COVID-19, I would even say that for super-inflamed skin, Cetaphil can be tissued off, rather than washed off, since water can be somewhat irritating. But I think in these times of germ precautions, washing it off is preferable.”

Original Witch Hazel Daily Refreshingly Clean Cleansing Cloths
Dickinson's Original Witch Hazel Daily Refreshingly Clean Cleansing Cloths $6.00

2. Try a Witch Hazel Wipe (or Toner-Soaked Cotton Pad)

I’ve been using a combo of things to mitigate bumps. I started carrying witch hazel wipes around with me in the event that I need to begrudgingly leave home. If I feel my face getting too hot or sweaty, I’ll reach for one of them and swipe it across my face; they work as a great non-drying astringent (and can actually be used in a number of other ways). I wear a simple organic cotton face mask that I already owned because I’m both a germaphobe, and a hoarder of weird objects, so I make sure to throw it in the washing machine with The Laundress non-toxic Sport Detergent (I’m obsessed with the smell of this) after every use.  

“From a breakout prevention standpoint, the main goal is creating a cleaner environment within the skin with less bacteria so that blemishes have less of a chance of appearing,” says esthetician Renée Rouleau. “The easiest and fastest way to do this is to apply a gentle, antibacterial toner, like my Rapid Response Detox, to a cotton pad and once or twice a day and wiping over the area where the mask sits.”

Click here for the best skincare products made with witch hazel.

sulfur ointment
De La Cruz Sulfur Ointment $8.00

3. Bring in the Big Guns If Needed

To banish the pesky cheek, mouth, and bridge-of-nose breakouts, I’ve been doubling down on this $8 sulfur mask This is a first line of defense for perioral dermatitis treatment too. I use this for no more than 20 minutes as a spot treatment. At night, I wash with Kate Somerville’s ExfoliKate Cleanser before applying her Eradikate Salicylic Acid Treatment.

lord jones acid mantle repair
Lord Jones Acid Mantle Repair $75.00

4. Hydrate and Repair

For irritation, I use a goopy miracle healing cream, like Lord Jones Acid Mantle Repair. I’m obsessed with this new face product. It repairs skin damaged from over-exfoliation (guilty) before you can even say “acid aftermath."

5. Treat Bruising With Arnica

This homeopathic gel has been a lifesaver for me with treating bruises. My favorite brand of arnica is Traumeel, which was recently rebranded to T-Relief. It combines arnica with 12 different plant-based active ingredients to provide natural, long-lasting pain relief and bruise control.

If you’re suffering from irritation or breakouts during quarantine, try one of the products mentioned above—if anything, it feels good to regain just a bit of control in one aspect of our lives.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Sarkar R, Ghunawat S, Garg VK. Comparative study of 35% glycolic acid, 20% salicylic–10% mandelic acid, and phytic acid combination peels in the treatment of active acne and postacne pigmentation. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2019;12(3):158-163.

  2. Tan AU, Schlosser BJ, Paller AS. A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2017;4(2):56-71.

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