We are all living in particularly uncertain times. The coronavirus pandemic has naturally made most of us anxious about our health, including the health of our skin as we adopt safety measures such as wearing a mask.
Wearing a mask is an important part of the fight against COVID-19
The use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), notably face masks, has become an important weapon in our arsenal in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19. Research shows that face masks, even of the reusable cotton type, can help to substantially reduce the risk of infection.¹ Wearing a mask reduces transmission of the virus by limiting the distance that airborne droplets travel, such as those expelled when sneezing or coughing, by about 50% compared to the distance these droplets would travel if the person wasn’t wearing a mask.² Not only that, wearing a face mask also provides greater protection to the wearer by blocking the droplets expelled by another person.² This actually makes social distancing more effective,³ as the recommended 1-2m distance is far enough away that the vast majority of droplets, which are only transmitted about 35cm when wearing a mask,² do not reach the next person.
While the science is strong, and the need to wear face masks is critically important in helping to curb the spread of the virus, this doesn’t mean that there are no downsides to wearing one, especially for our skin.
How facial skin can be affected by face masks
The skin is a complex organ that requires carefully balanced environments, both inside the body and out, to function effectively. As the skin is literally the body’s first line of defence to the outside world, this means that it is particularly sensitive to changes in factors such as temperature, humidity and friction. If any of these are too high or too low, your skin can react in a multitude of ways.⁴
Wearing a mask for extended periods of time is introducing a relatively enclosed environment that can increase temperature on that part of the face. Increasing temperature can also increase sebum (oil) secretion.⁵
In addition, exhaled breath can lead to some condensation within the mask itself, increasing the moisture content on the skin. This can irritate the skin, and is fertile ground for acne-causing bacteria.
Finally, the mechanical friction caused by wearing a mask, especially behind the ears and around the cheeks, nose and chin, can lead to irritation.
An internet survey from this year found that, of a total of 2,307 replies from the general public in Poland, 1,393 people, or just over 60% of respondents, reported wearing a face mask during the previous week.⁶ Of these people, 273 (19.6%) reported experiencing itch, and it was found that people with sensitive skin or common skin conditions such as acne or eczema had a significantly greater chance of experiencing itch.⁶ The authors additionally found that almost 30% of people experiencing itch either tried to scratch over the mask or removed it to scratch, reducing the protection afforded by correct mask usage.⁶
Clearly, the effects of a face mask on the skin can be uncomfortable and potentially lead to incorrect usage. Below are three considerations to keep in mind to help make wearing a mask as comfortable as possible.
How to manage the effects of mask-wearing on your skin
Hydration is key to the proper functioning of the skin. The use of moisturisers, commonly termed emollient therapy, is a well-documented way of helping to alleviate symptoms such as dry skin.⁶
The outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, consists of layers of flattened, dead skin cells embedded in a lipid bilayer, and it is through this layer that moisture can be lost to the outside environment. As the skin loses moisture, the integrity of the stratum corneum becomes impaired, leading to small cracks and gaps forming in between the cells. This not only leads to dry, flaky skin, it allows the passage of irritants and allergens into the skin.
One way to combat this is through the use of well-formulated, moisturisers. By using products that contain ingredients such as occludents, emollients and humectants, you can not only offset the dryness that can be caused by face masks, but also help to reduce discomfort. In addition, moisturisers containing occlusive ingredients such as petrolatum or silicones such as dimethicone can help to form a water-resistant barrier on the skin, reducing the negative impact of too much moisture building up under your mask.
If dryness persists, you may want to try moisturisers with a heavier, occlusive base. These can feel greasier than lotions or creams, but they will form a layer on your skin, trapping moisture in.
2. Practice good hygiene and use a cleanser that won’t aggravate your skin
In addition to masks, another key recommendation by healthcare bodies during this pandemic is frequent and thorough hand hygiene. Washing your skin with water and soap (or a cleanser with no added soap) is one of the best things you can do.⁷ But cleansing the skin properly is also important when it comes to managing the impact of prolonged mask wearing. As noted above, the increased temperature of your face when under a mask can lead to the build-up of sebum and the clogging of pores, so a daily routine that utilises a cleanser and water can help to offset this. Soap is the traditional cleanser of choice for most people, but as it is naturally alkaline, and our skin is naturally slightly acidic, soap can alter the skins composition⁸ and lead to irritation, especially for people with sensitive skin. Using a gentle, pH balanced cleanser in place of soap will cleanse the skin just as well as soap.
3. Wear the correct mask
The quality of the fit or design of face masks maybe significant factors in determining how you skin reacts. Ill-fitting or badly designed masks will not only be ineffective but may significantly increase dry skin. For instance, a loose-fitting mask may constantly move about your face, leading to friction around the ears, nose and chin, whereas a tight mask may cause deep indentations on your skin, increasing the likelihood of dryness.
When choosing a mask, it is best to seek medical advice about choosing the correct face mask. Remember to wash the mask in hot water between every use, which will beat the end of the day for most.
Spending a little time to ensure that your face mask is suitable and comfortable, and ensuring that you have appropriate topical products to help look after your skin, is the best course of action to make the wearing of face masks as comfortable as possible.
Face masks + social distancing + proper hygiene
It is more important than ever to remain vigilant. In addition to face masks and other protective equipment, maintaining social distancing and practicing hygiene, such as washing your hands often for at least 20 seconds with soap or a cleanser with no added soap, remain our most effective weapons to date in this fight.
THIS ARTICLE IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. PLEASE CONSULT YOUR MEDICAL PRACTIONER FOR INFORMATION ABOUT COVID OR COVID RELATED PROTECTIVE MEASURES.