Face Mask Skin Irritation: 7 Soothing Tips & Tricks To Keep Your Skin Healthy

Healthcare professionals AND patients, consumers, and shoppers will be wearing a mask or face covering for months to come to minimize coronavirus exposure.

By David Mays
Jun 29, 2020

Question – Wearing a face covering is causing my face to become red and irritated. It's even breaking out like I was 13 again.  Is there anything I can do to help?

Answer – Wearing a face mask is becoming recognized as a medically, and socially, necessary thing to do – for good reasons. Right now, healthcare professionals AND patients, consumers, and shoppers will be wearing a mask or face covering for months to come to minimize coronavirus exposure.  Dating back before any of us can remember, face masks (coverings) have been used as protection during surgeries, and they have been shown to keep doctors and care providers safe from germs during complex procedures and during routine care. A not often talked about fact is that surgical masks used during operations are also worn to protect the patient on the table. They keep those micro-droplets of sputum (aka spit) from entering the surgical field (sterile area around the patient) as the providers talk about life-saving strategies, techniques, and next steps during procedures. Communication during an operation is critical and there has never been room for social distancing in an operating room.  

Mask-related irritation is not new.  Health care providers report it and papers describe it in the medical literature. One study found that over a third of the staff in a hospital setting reported skin reactions like acne, itching, and rash following the use of N-95 masks during 8-hour shifts. Other less commonly reported skin complaints included skin peeling, pigmentation changes, and redness. Even others reported contact dermatitis and allergic type reactions related to formaldehyde textile resins used in the production of surgical uniforms and masks. In general, the more someone is required to wear a mask, the greater the chance that those with a sensitivity will react. 

Reports of irritation are linked to the nonwoven fabrics used to make masks and more importantly, the chemicals used in the creation of those fabric materials. Surgical masks and some face coverings are made in high volume and usually contain nonwoven fabric materials like nylon, acrylics, or polyester. Even rayon, which can be 100% naturally derived, is considered a nonwoven and can be used. Some masks are also held together (stitched) with glues and other binding materials which can be made with ingredients known to cause irritation. While manufacturing processes have improved, what may be surprising is many of the ingredients and allergens used in the creation of surgical-grade masks can also be found in consumer skincare products like moisturizers, shampoos, and other toiletries. However, unlike your favorite consumer products, masks and face coverings are not required to list all the ingredients used to create them. 

To avoid allergens and irritants in your skin and personal care products, look for a TopFREE badge on SkinSAFE. Products that display the 100% SkinSAFE/TopFREE badge, are ones that avoid the 11 most common skin allergens/irritants. In addition, all ingredients are checked for potential, cross-reacting substances as well. This is very important given that ingredients are often grouped together based on chemical structure. If you react to one member of that group (e.g. quaternium-15) it is more likely that you will react to others that share a resemblance (e.g. DMDM-hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, etc.).

Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending the use of face-coverings or masks when you are going to be in close contact with someone and in cases where social distancing is not possible. Some states and retail stores are going even further and requiring the use of face coverings. The CDC is careful to recognize that the general public does not need to wear surgical-grade, N-95 masks and advises that even household items (bandana’s, scarves, etc.) may be helpful and serve as a barrier to fluids that can carry coronaviruses between people.

So let’s talk through the “lucky 7” tips and tricks which might help you comply with the wearing of masks and also keep your face and skin looking great.

 Tip 1 – Understand Your Individual Risk Level If you are required to wear a mask due to your job or find yourself in a high-risk group, health wise, assess the risk levels of your common everyday activities. Key takeaway…you do not need to wear a mask EVERYWHERE to be protected. The CDC has some great information on their Daily Life and Coping site about risk and COVID-19. 

In the grocery store – absolutely. In your car as you drive home – no.  Walking your dog in the park where people are socially distancing – no.  Driving to the park in your car – no. Stopping at pharmacy to pick up your prescription – definitely. Having a clear understanding of where and when you will be at risk not only protects you, but also can help minimize your mask wear time.

Tip 2 – Function Over Fashion

Look for masks made from materials that you would wear, sleep in, or surround yourself with on a regular basis. Look for multi-layer natural fabrics such as tightly woven cotton, that can be laundered at home. While those masks which can match your yoga pants or those that can disguise you as Darth Vader look cool, they usually are not made from natural fibers and some can be quite occlusive to the skin trapping sweat and irritants. If the fabric feels like something you wear in the wintertime to keep yourself warm while outdoors…stay away. These fabrics are designed to keep the cold out and the heat in. If the fabric or material looks and feels like something that you could wear while surfing or swimming with sharks, avoid those too.

Tip 3 – One is Never Enough

When you find a mask or face covering you like, get several. Everyone knows if you need reading glasses, you have several pairs – for the car, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. Same with masks. You might also think of masks as another “undergarment” and most of us have lots more than one set of those! (insert wink emoji) 

Tip 4 – Gentle Cleansing is Not Just for Babies

Launder your masks or face coverings with a detergent you use on a regular basis. If you notice make up or dirt accumulating, it’s time for a cleaning. Good options include:

Other TopFREE laundry detergent options can be found here.

Try the gentle or handwash cycle of your machine and spot clean as necessary with a facial cleansing or sensitive skin baby wipe. If your masks come with an insert, remove those and set aside or replace as directed.

Tip 5 – Remember Your Skincare Routine  

With so many people working from home, common routines associated with getting ready for work or bed can be secondary. We all forget. If you use a topical medication or other treatment, give your skin time to rest before putting on a mask and maybe apply the medication at times during the day when you know you won’t have to wear a mask or face covering for at least 30 minutes to an hour. If you are in a hot and humid area, have oily skin, or are prone to break outs, consider switching to a gel moisturizer formulation with hyaluronic acid.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream formulation will dry quickly, and hyaluronic acid is found naturally in your skin. It loves water and holds it tight to hydrate. If you need to wear a mask daily, moisturization is very important. This will help decrease friction and minimize irritation. At the end of the day, do not forget to use a gentle cleanser or a makeup remover wipe formulated for sensitive skin. 

Some TopFREE considerations are listed here. These will help remove any irritants that could have been transferred from the masks or face covering you are wearing.

Tip 6 – Cosmetics Can be Hiding More Than You Knew

We all want to look our best but consider what’s on your agenda for the day. Think about putting your mask or face covering on first then apply makeup to the exposed areas – especially if you know that once it is on, it will not be coming off for a while. This will minimize the amount of make up or coverup that is trapped beneath the edges of your face covering.  

You might be surprised to know a study found that 79-90% of cosmetics that were used and then donated for analysis were contaminated with bacteria and fungi after regular use. 

Remedy? Replace your cosmetics regularly, choose those that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin, keep the foundation light, and given this recent study, keep those masks fresh by laundering regularly (See Tip 4). You also might try a combination gentle moisturizer with tint such as Bare Mineral Complexion Rescue Tinted Hydrating Gel Cream. This product is TopFREE and comes in several colors. 

Other TopFree tinted moisturizers can be found here

Tip 7 – Listen to Your Skin

The last tip is to remember that mild redness may occur when wearing masks or face coverings since they can rub, and ties or straps can be tight around your ears or scalp. This may be unavoidable. If your skin continues to be “angry” long after your face covering is removed, or it becomes broken, cut, or blistered, contact your healthcare provider right away. Many offices now see patients virtually which can save time and provide some peace of mind. Your skin will talk to you…just be sure to listen.

Hang tight. We're thinking.