PPE Skin-Care Guide: How to Treat Acne Caused by Face Masks


This story is part of our Self-Care Is Essential project exploring the simple power of caring for yourself.

All around the country, Americans are learning what it feels like to wear a protective mask. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s latest guidance advises Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public areas where social distancing is difficult, to reduce the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.

Nonessential workers are buying fabric masks and learning to sew, perhaps for the first time, but front line medical workers, including those highlighted in our “51 Faces of America” feature, have spent weeks or months wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) for hours every day. The constant use of gloves and masks is a preventive measure that’s keeping medical workers safe. But at the end of what we can only imagine is a very long day, when doctors and nurses finally remove their masks, many of them are seeing breakouts, rashes, and skin irritation.

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reports a striking 97 percent rate of skin damage enhanced by infection-prevention measures among front line medical workers in Hubei, China. Just over 70 percent of those workers cited dry skin; 56.8 percent faced tenderness; and 52.5 percent felt itchy skin. Over 60 percent noted desquamation (peeling skin); 49.4 percent experienced erythema (redness due to burst blood vessels); and 32.9 percent had papules (pimples). The nasal bridge, where a mask rests, was the most common area of irritation.

“N95 masks have a particularly high risk for injury due to requirements for a tight fit,” says Bruce A. Brod, a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “Injury can occur as a result of friction and the accumulation of moisture under the mask.”

More importantly, N95 masks are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders.”

According to board-certified dermatologist Carrie Kovarik, problems associated with masks (including non-N95 masks) such as acne, which is “caused from the occlusion of the mask on the skin, whereby the hair follicles are blocked”; contact dermatitis caused by materials in the masks; irritant dermatitis on pressure points like the nose and ears; and moisture-related dermatitis around the mouth from breath or saliva.

Front line workers will most likely have to wear their PPE for weeks to come, but we spoke to dermatologists about how medical workers can best keep skin happy (or at least pain-free) during the crisis.

Before the mask goes on, you should…

Start a simple, effective skin-care routine.

“The most important thing you can do to prevent irritation and breakouts is to keep your skin clean and well moisturized,” says Brod. “Wash your face gently but thoroughly using a pH-balanced cleanser before and after wearing a mask to remove oil, dirt, and bacteria, and apply moisturizer immediately after washing. Make sure both your cleanser and moisturizer are fragrance-free, noncomedogenic, and not known to irritate your skin.”

Need help finding gentle skin-care options? Our guides to cleansers and moisturizers for sensitive skin can help.

Protect the moisture barrier.

The skin’s moisture barrier is just what it sounds like: It helps the skin retain moisture.

Board-certified dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali recommends using a product that can help protect the barrier, such as Desitin, which is better known as a diaper rash cream. “It has zinc, which is great for barrier protection,” he says.