What the heck is maskne and what can I do about it if I have it?



Another gift from the pandemic that keeps on giving.

I scoffed loudly the first time I received a PR email about how to combat “maskne”. Great, I thought, another manufactured malady to be self-conscious about.

Maskne is a portmanteau of something that’s caused me a lot of anguish (acne) and something that reminds me of the fact that we’re in a deadly, global pandemic (compulsory masks), which only adds to my disdain. That said, it’s a convenient way to refer to the mask-induced eruptions that have made my face their home, so for the sake of this article, we’ll go with it. 

Like many people, I’ve struggled with my skin throughout my life – I had terrible cystic acne when I was younger and went on several rounds of Accutane. At age 26, I still get acne, particularly hormonal breakouts, but thanks to the aforementioned medication and a very particular skincare routine, it’s a lot more manageable these days.

Prior to masks becoming compulsory in Victoria, I was in an unusually good place with my skin. The combined forces of wearing little to no makeup (one of the upsides of working from home), incorporating a flannel into my skincare routine, drinking more water and getting more sleep were working wonders for my epidermis.

Fast forward to a few months into compulsory mask-wearing, though, and things are not so peachy for me skin wise. For all my scepticism, the dreaded maskne has become a firm fixture in my life. So what exactly is happening under the mask that’s causing these breakouts, and, more importantly, how can I clear it up and prevent it from happening in the future? 

What is maskne?

Put simply, maskne describes the breakouts we get in areas that are covered by our masks. Hannah English, a beauty and skincare expert with a background in pharmaceutical science, tells me that it’s regular acne that’s been “exacerbated by the conditions the mask makes for our skin.”

What are these factors exactly? “There’s occlusion where the fabric of the mask is sort of pushing oil and dirt back into our skin, there’s also friction from the mask moving around, which can contribute to inflammation, and there’s humidity from the moisture in our breath, which makes a great breeding ground for bacteria,” she explains.

Australian skincare brand Biologi’s Dermal Specialist, Lucy Macdougald, agrees, explaining that maskne occurs because masks trap “an array of things like oil, sweat, breath droplets, makeup and mask fibres, making it the perfect breeding ground for skin irritation.” Yikes.

But this isn’t the first time maskne has reared its unsightly head, it’s just the first time a sizeable section of the population has been experiencing it. “This condition has actually been around for a while (particularly amongst those working in medical fields), however, it’s come to the forefront since COVID-19 which has seen regular folk having to wear a mask and often for prolonged periods.”

So how do I treat it?

I currently have a maskne break out spreading across my chin and jawline, so I obviously used this opportunity to ask the experts for their suggestions on how to get rid of it. “My favourite way to treat a breakout is with LED followed by a pimple patch. LED wands use red light to heal inflammation, and blue light to kill bacteria, all while being gentle to your skin.

“A pimple patch is just a small hydrocolloid bandaid, essentially, and these work by drawing the… gunk, for lack of a less disgusting word, out of your spot. You also can’t pick at the spot when it’s on, which is HUGELY beneficial as not touching it means no introducing extra bacteria, and no further resulting inflammation. And the beauty of wearing a mask is that no one can see your pimple patch,” Hannah says.

Lucy suggests giving your skin a rest by avoiding makeup and anything that you know might irritate it. “Try not to touch your face too much and definitely don’t pick at any blemishes or blackheads. Then, implement a thorough but gentle cleansing product into your routine that will restore balance to the skin but won’t strip it.

“You’ll want to avoid any products that are too drying as this will only cause further irritation. Then apply a serum that will hydrate and actively treat any breakouts whilst working to reduce inflammation. If you’re using any heavy or harsh products, try to only use them sparingly or as a spot treatment as you don’t want to end up with flaky skin too,” she explains.

Better yet, how can I prevent it?

As a Melburnian, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for the good of everyone, we’ll be wearing masks every time we leave our houses for the foreseeable future (something that Dan Andrew’s announcement on the weekend seemed to confirm).

I’ve already gone a bit nuts buying an excessive amount of face masks from local fashion designers in a desperate attempt to inject some fun into a very un-fun time, but cute face coverings aside, what practices can I implement to prevent further maskne breakouts?

“A great tip is to avoid makeup, or only wear makeup on the top half of your face where the mask doesn’t touch. Try to wear a mask made out of fabric that is breathable, like a silk mask with protective layers. Also, ensure you wash your mask regularly (ideally after every use) or allow it to air out in between uses. Continue with a thorough cleansing routine and a hydrating serum and be kind and gentle with your skin,” Lucy tells me.

Hannah also suggests opting for a silk mask, and points me towards Slip Silk’s masks. If silk is not the fabric for you, aim for a mask in a soft fabric, and tighten it so it won’t move around the face and cause further friction. In line with Lucy’s recommendations, Hannah says that minimising the number of products worn under the mask is key. “Cleanse, serum, and sunscreen. If you can skip makeup, do it, just so there’s less on your skin to clog it. Cleanse as soon as possible when you get home, and of course, wear a clean mask every day.”

She also recommends using a moisturiser with ceramides to help support your skin’s barrier and exfoliating regularly with an AHA/BHA mix. If you’re new to acid exfoliants, you’ll want to avoid over irritating your skin, so start out with twice-weekly use before building up to more regular use.

How about some product recommendations?

Because I’m a product junkie, I ask if there are any products Lucy and Hannah have been finding particularly helpful when it comes to maskne. Hannah suggests trying Dr Dennis Gross’ Breakout Clearing Gel, the Spotlite LED Device from Mecca Cosmetica and Kate Somerville’s Delikate Moisturiser for dry skin or Delikate Serum for normal to oily skin, both of which will help repair the skin’s barrier.

Lucy recommends Biologi’s Bc Refresh Complete Cleansing Bundle because it’s free from synthetic irritants that can cause sensitivity and increase the toxic load on the skin. “The microfibre cloths are a sustainable way to thoroughly remove any makeup, then the cleanser is packed with nourishing actives that wash away impurities to leave skin fresh, clean and clear. It’s also really gentle on the skin and won’t strip it of its natural oils.”

Armed with treatment, prevention and product tips, I’m feeling a lot better about the sweaty mask-covered summer months that lie ahead of me. Now go forth and wear your (clean) mask, avoid wearing makeup underneath it and if maskne pays you a visit, adhere to Hannah and Lucy’s learned advice.

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