Breakouts are enough to deal with during normal times (hormones, you suck!), but the COVID-shaped curveball our world has thrown at us has now added more fuel to the acne fire.
What are we talking about? Acne mechanica, otherwise known across social media as maskne and vi-brow.
Those of you whose job or lifestyle calls for protection to be worn on a daily basis will be well aware of maskne, the ‘fun’ term for acne around your mouth and nose caused by mask wearing, and vi-brow, the same pesky friction spots caused by visors that appear along the forehead and eyebrows.
Annoying at best, these localized spots are downright depressing and can cause all sorts of discomfort and skin problems if not treated.
So with us all being advised to wear some form of mouth and nose protection in public for the foreseeable future, we figured it was time that we looked into this unwanted and (to be honest) unfair skin phenomenon.
What Causes Maskne and Vi-Brow?
Irritation from wearing something tight against the skin is nothing new. Football players experience it where their helmets rub, and healthcare workers who regularly wear PPE (personal protective equipment) such as N95 masks, latex gloves, and gowns have been putting up with adverse skin reactions for years. One study carried out in 2003 (after SARS was first recognized) showed that of 307 healthcare workers surveyed, almost 60 percent reported acne spots from wearing an N95 mask while just over 50 percent noticed facial itching and 36 percent endured a rash.
So why does this happen? Well, simply put, acne mechanica is the result of mechanical friction of fabric against the skin. This constant friction irritates the hair follicles on your skin and results in a build-up of sebum, sweat, and bacteria – a one-way ticket to irritation and breakouts.
The fabric and chemicals used to make most face protective masks doesn’t help either. Surgical masks are often made of synthetic materials like nylon, acrylic, or polyester, which are all known to cause irritation. They’re then stitched together with some kind of glue, which does nothing but exacerbate the problem. Similarly, face shields or visors are usually made of plastic, which is held to your skin by a covered headband or fabric strap. Again, non-woven fabrics and glue are right there against your forehead. Sigh.
If all this wasn’t enough, the skin around your mouth and nose also contends with a moisture-rich environment from warm breath and micro-droplets of spit getting trapped in all that synthetic fabric. And while bacteria loves this warm, moist environment, your skin does not like it very much.
All in all, the delicate skin on your face stands little chance from such irritation-inducing products, especially if your skin is naturally sensitive, oily, or acne-prone.
But it’s not all bad news…
What You Can Do About Acne Mechanica
It doesn’t look like PPE is going anywhere soon, so here are ten ways to help control the maskne and vi-brow situation.
Wear masks made from natural fabric.
To give your skin the best chance against maskne, stick with a tightly woven, 100 percent cotton mask. A multi-layered cotton mask is not only an effective option according to COVID-19 guidelines from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but it’s also lightweight and washable and allows heat to escape more easily than its synthetic alternatives.
Also, invest in more than one mask, so you don’t get caught short – like ever.
Keep your protective swag as clean as possible.
Clean your PPE thoroughly and often – every day if possible and ALWAYS after exercising. Just think about all those nasty microbes festering in the weave of that fabric ready to breed acne on your skin. Gross, right?
If you’re wearing a visor, thoroughly wash both the front and back of the plastic shield, before using a mild soap and warm water to thoroughly clean the lining of your visor. And remember to always wash your hands afterwards.
When it comes to face masks, we pop ours in the laundry, but again, you can wash it by hand using mild soap or shampoo.
Avoid touching your face.
Touching your face is a no-no from a health perspective anyway, but it will also transfer any dirt or bacteria from your hands to your skin. And we think it has enough to contend with already, thanks very much.
Visors are actually a great way to force you to stop touching your face as it’s darn tricky to get your mitts between the visor and your skin. But if you’re a mask wearer and notoriously bad at touching your face and picking at blemishes, try to break the habit by being conscious every time you do it. Realizing what you’re doing is the first step to stopping the cycle.
Keep your hair pinned back.
Bangs and face visors are not a good combo because the excess oil and sweat from your hair adds to all that build-up. If a face visor is your thing, keep any hair pinned off your face and away from your forehead. It’s that simple.
Cleanse your skin well and often.
Gentle cleansing is imperative 365 days a year but never more so than now. Try keeping some fragrance-free, biodegradable cleansing wipes (we’re into Almay Biodegradable Micellar Makeup Remover Cleaning Towelettes) in your purse for on-the-go cleansing, and then thoroughly cleanse your skin both morning and night. Avoid products that contain harsh sulfates and parabens because these can further damage the skin barrier. Instead, stick with gentle cleansers that contain few ingredients and are non-pore clogging.
For a thorough cleanse, wash your hands first – most of us forget this important step. And then apply cleanser all over your face and neck. Work the product gently into your skin by massaging with the pads of your fingers, and then rinse thoroughly and pat dry with a clean towel.
Double cleanse at night.
Speaking of cleansing, try going all in before bed with a double cleansing sesh.
Double cleansing originated in Asia in the 14th century and is a super-effective way to allow your skin to repair, strengthen, and regenerate itself overnight. Again, remember not to over-cleanse with harsh, fragrance-fueled ingredients because stripping your skin of its natural oils tricks it into thinking it needs to produce even more. This will just add to the acne problem you’re trying to get rid of.
The best way to double cleanse? Start with an oil-based cleanser or gentle, non-scrubbing exfoliator to remove makeup, sebum, sunscreen, and any other nasties that could be lurking on the surface of your skin. Then rinse and cleanse again with a cream, lotion, or gel to wash everything away.
Curb your active skincare routine.
Plying your skin with strong, active ingredients is not the best idea if it’s been compromised by friction and bacteria overload. And remember that moisture-rich environment we spoke of earlier? Well, this will intensify product delivery to your skin making ingredients like AHAs, BHAs and vitamin C doubly strong. This may sound great in theory, but these ingredients can be irritating if not controlled, so tread carefully – especially if you’ve never used them before. Even if you’re a seasoned AHA user, you may want to reduce your frequency of usage if you notice anything unusual happening with your skin.
Your best bet, however, is to stick with active ingredients at night only. Try a low concentration of retinol or better still, our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment which is formulated with lactic acid, licorice, and prickly pear extract to gently exfoliate, hydrate, calm, and soothe your skin as you sleep.
Keep makeup to a minimum.
Foundation-free is a phrase that causes many people to break out in cold sweats, but caking your skin in heavy, oil-based makeup that clogs pores and exacerbates flare-ups? Nope. If you can, leave your skin clean, bare, and moisturized whenever you’re masked up, and wear something like a tinted moisturizer with broad-spectrum sunscreen as a lighter alternative to full-on foundation when you go outside. You could also go for a non-pore-clogging mineral foundation like BareMinerals Original Foundation with SPF 15.
If you are a heavy makeup lover and nothing is going to change that, remember lip gloss or anything else that might stick to your mask is an absolute no-no, and thorough cleansing every night is vital. We repeat: V. I. T. A. L.
Switch up your moisturizer.
Moisturizing is more important than ever when you’re wearing a mask on a frequent basis. How so? Because keeping your skin hydrated and supple reduces friction (yay) and helps minimize consequent irritation from said friction (double yay).
That being said, you don’t want to overload your skin with heavy creams that are pumped full of ingredients like cocoa butter or coconut oil. Instead, switch to lightweight, gel-based formulations that contain hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a naturally-occurring humectant that can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water and its ability to draw in and hold water without the need for heavy oils, making it an awesome ingredient in anyone’s skincare regime.
Seek help if things get really bad.
If you’ve tried everything but simply can’t shake off your flare-ups, it might be time to see a skin expert for advice. And if the irritation on your skin feels itchy or looks more like a rash than acne spots? Then you could be suffering with contact dermatitis, rather than acne mechanica.
Contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction to something that’s come in direct contact with the skin such as metals, rubber, or chemicals and dyes found in fabrics and glues. If you suspect this is the case, consult an allergist or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and treatment.