Why Do Face Masks Irritate the Skin?
Skin irritation when wearing protective equipment like face masks is extremely common. Irritation can appear as red bumps or patches on the skin, patches of sensitivity that will burn when you wash your face, or even pimples. There are several reasons why this happens. To begin with, the skin on your face is thinner and significantly more sensitive than the skin on your body, and so it is more susceptible to sensitivity, redness, and blemishes than the body.
A mask creates a barrier between the environment and your skin, and excess heat and humidity get trapped in the mask - creating the perfect environment for bacteria to multiply. Apart from that, a face mask will fit more tightly in some areas, typically the jawline, chin, and nose, and the friction it creates harms your skin's barrier and makes it even more susceptible to irritation and blemishes. So, heat, humidity, and friction combined make masks a potential skin irritant.
Needless to say, tight-fitting respirators like the widely-known N-95 will be more suffocating and irritating for the skin, which is why only essential workers, specifically medical staff, are recommended to wear these masks. Respirators can even cause bruising on the skin, which sadly cannot be prevented.
That being said, not wearing face masks is not an option, for the safety of others and our own are more important than having beautiful skin. Thankfully, you can make certain tweaks in your self-care routine to prevent and treat mask-related skin irritation. We list these tips and tricks, along with a soothing face mask recipe you can do at home below.
1. Use a lighter moisturizer when wearing a mask
As we've mentioned previously, one of the reasons skin irritation occurs is excess moisture that gets trapped in the skin. If you're using a thick moisturizer every day before wearing a face mask, it can make irritation worse, as it creates an occlusive layer on the skin that traps moisture and heat in the skin. Instead, opt for a moisturizer with a more lightweight texture, maybe even a gel moisturizer when you know you'll be wearing a mask. This is especially true for those of you who have oily, combination, or normal skin, as wearing a heavy moisturizer can cause acne and breakouts.
2. Cleanse your face with lukewarm water only
If you wash your face immediately after returning home and taking off the face mask, this may actually be causing even more irritation. While washing the face, you're actually somewhat stripping your skin of its lipid barrier, which is fine when your skin is in good shape but might be harmful when it's irritated by the face mask. To calm your skin and decrease the amount of redness, breakouts, and dry patches that might appear after wearing a mask, try only using lukewarm water on the face - no soap or cleansers, no cleansing wipes, and no micellar water. To finish off, gently pat-dry the skin with a clean towel.
3. Replace or wash your mask regularly
It doesn't matter if you're using a disposable surgical mask, a respirator, or a cloth mask, you have to replace or clean it according to the manufacturer's instructions, usually after a single use. When it comes to reusable cloth face masks, you should wash them, preferably in the washing machine, after every use. To learn more on the topic, follow this link, Know When and Why You Should Change Your Face Mask.
In addition, be mindful of the detergent you're using to wash a cloth mask. Opt for hypoallergenic detergents, like those intended for infants and kids, and avoid highly-fragranced options and fabric softener, since fragrance can cause further irritation or even an allergic reaction. If you suspect that your face mask is causing an allergic reaction and you see swollen red spots or patches on your skin, red or irritated nose, mouth, or eyes, you need to call a doctor.
4. Lay off the makeup when wearing a mask
If you're a makeup wearer, consider not applying any complexion products like foundation, blush, concealer, etc. on your skin when wearing a mask, at least not in the areas where the mask sits on your face. You can still wear some mascara or undereye concealer, of course, if you so wish, but avoiding any extra layers of product on the skin will make it more resilient against irritation.
Dermatologists point out an additional concern: wearing makeup underneath a mask may increase your risk of developing a skin allergy towards some of the ingredients in the makeup you're using in the long term.
5. Shave off the beard
Facial hair can further irritate the skin, and it can trap more moisture and heat than smooth skin, so it's best to shave your face clean if you're wearing a mask regularly and experiencing some irritation as a result. In addition, some face masks can be rendered ineffective when you have facial hair, which is why the CDC even published facial hairstyle guidelines for those who wear respirators, such as medical workers. To view the infographic image illustrating these guidelines, click here.
6. Choose a face masks made of natural fabrics
Obviously, not everyone can choose the type of face mask they wear, with certain occupations being forced to wear respirators on a daily basis. However, many people do have the option of selecting the type of fabric they want their face mask to have, and if you find that surgical masks are quite irritating for your skin, we recommend you try a face mask made of a natural type of fabric, like cotton.
Do keep in mind, however, that single-layer cotton masks will not be effective at protecting you and others from germs, so make sure the mask you use has several layers of fabric. Stay away from synthetic fabrics as much as you can.
7. Avoid spot treatments and exfoliating products
When you get blemishes or red bumps on the skin, it's only natural that you reach for a spot treatment of some sort, like benzoyl peroxide or sulfur treatment. Or maybe, you're just the type of person who uses an exfoliating cream, toner or scrub from time to time to keep your skin smooth.
If you suspect that the skin problem was caused by a face mask, it's safest to avoid an exfoliating or spot treatment for a few days until your skin regenerates, as these treatments can potentially exacerbate the problem and make your skin sting and leave scars. Stay away from any treatments that contain any active ingredients, such as retinol, vitamin C, or others, as they may likewise sting and dry out your already sensitized skin.
8. Don’t chew on gum when wearing a mask
Chewing gum while wearing a face mask can actually cause skin rashes or bumps around the mouth - a condition called perioral dermatitis. This is because of the mint and other essential oils chewing gum contains, which could be irritating for skin that's already weakened by wearing masks on a daily basis.
The same condition could arise because of your toothpaste, with toothpaste varieties that contain the ingredient SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate), peppermint or cinnamon essential oils being the most common irritants. If you get rashes around your mouth or on your lips after wearing a face mask and you don't chew gum, consider changing your toothpaste for a hypoallergenic kind - such as kids' toothpaste or toothpaste low in fluoride and intended for sensitive teeth.
9. Apply a calming treatment at night
During the day, we recommended a lightweight moisturizer to minimize the likelihood of excess humidity and heat in your skin, but the night-time is the time to replenish and restore your skin. To do so, dermatologists recommend using thick, occlusive moisturizers that will replenish your skin's barrier function, which will automatically reduce the redness and any other skin issues you may be experiencing as a result of wearing a mask.
Opt for fragrance-free moisturizers, such that contain skin-barrier-friendly and soothing ingredients, such as but not limited to:
- Centella Asiatica, also known as Tiger Grass
- Nourishing oils
- Zinc oxide.
10. Oatmeal water mask for skin irritation
Oatmeal is one of the most soothing ingredients for the skin and the body overall, with colloidal oatmeal baths (ground up oatmeal grain diluted in water) being recommended for all kinds of skin irritation starting with eczema and ending with skin burns. The nutrients, vitamins, and minerals oatmeal contains have anti-inflammatory, calming, moisturizing, and restorative properties, which make it perfect for skin irritation of any kind.
We recommend using colloidal oatmeal as part of your nighttime skincare routine. To use colloidal oatmeal to soothe your skin, follow this recipe:
1. Process about 1 tablespoon of plain oatmeal into a very fine powder in a food blender, add it to 1 glass of warm water and mix until the water is dissolved completely, forming a milky-white liquid.
2. Soak a cotton pad with the solution you've created, gently wiping across your face, as you would with a facial toner. No need to wash off the mixture with water. Your skin will feel slightly moisturized after using colloidal oatmeal, but we recommend applying moisturizer over top to seal in the moisture.