For Nancy, a nurse in an intensive care unit in New Jersey, her skin care woes started with breakouts on her face and soreness behind the ears. As the weeks ticked on, those same skin irritations began to escalate among her co-workers as their shifts got longer to meet the growing demand for hospital support during the coronavirus pandemic. “Our skin does get torn up and bruised when wearing these masks for 12 to 14 hours per shift,” she tells CNN Underscored.
Gwen, another nurse in New Jersey, has been dealing with acne breakouts, irritation and redness as well. “These masks make it very difficult to breathe, and there is no air circulation,” she says. “I see irritation right where the mask molds against my face, which I like to call my ‘hero wounds.’”
The hospital workers we spoke with have gotten innovative with ways to ease the physical pain they experience while wearing face masks. They will sport headbands with buttons or throw their hair into space buns to protect their ears from the elastic bands of masks, although it doesn’t always help. “I wear my hair in all sorts of styles so that the mask isn’t as tight behind my ears and along my face, although they are (still) very tight. Some days I don’t have the ability to shift it around, so these wounds are just inevitable,” adds Gwen.
Nurses and doctors aren’t the only hospital staff experiencing job-related skin issues. Susan, a physical therapist in an acute care hospital and at one of the Covid-19 field medical stations in New Jersey, works closely with doctors, nurses, and respiratory and occupational therapists to help Covid-19-positive patients improve their mobility and function.
“Prior to Covid-19, if we wore masks, it would typically be for five to 30 minutes at a time, not a full shift,” she says. “My skin has started to break out along areas where the masks put extra pressure: under my chin and beneath my eyes.”
Once we learned about the skin care problems hospital staff are facing, coupled with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that everyone wear a protective face covering in public, we reached out to the skin experts, including dermatologists, to break down everything you need to know about skin care and face masks during the coronavirus era.
From dealing with “maskne,” to must-have skin care ingredients to incorporate into your routine, to what materials to avoid when purchasing or making your face masks, we’ve considered every question.
Health care workers need their masks to be tight-fitting for best efficacy, but the trade-off is that the masks can cause abrasions, cuts, redness, acne, irritation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, explains New York dermatologist Dr. Hadley King.
According to King, we need to make sure our masks are not tighter than necessary and that the mask is smooth and not abrasive when touching our skin. “If you notice this kind of irritation after removing the mask, wash the area with water and a gentle cleanser and apply an ointment to help the skin heal,” she adds.
Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($13.79; target.com)
CeraVe Healing Ointment ($17.18, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
“Lubricate the skin with occlusive ointments like Aquaphor Healing Ointment and CeraVe Healing Ointment to create a barrier and help the skin heal,” says King.
Dynarex Hydrocolloid Dressing ($14.28; amazon.com)
“Thin hydrocolloid bandages can also be placed in high-impact areas like the nose and cheeks to relieve some pressure,” she says.
Summer means increased temperatures and humidity, which could affect both our comfort while wearing a mask and the health of our skin, according to the professionals we spoke with.
There are two main ways face masks can damage the skin, according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
“First, direct friction can lead to skin barrier disruption, irritation and inflammation,” he says. “Second, masks can trap oil, dirt and sweat on the skin, leading to flares of conditions like acne, eczema and rosacea.”
King agrees, saying, “Skin irritations from rubbing, friction and pressure are likely to be exacerbated by sweat, which can make the skin more vulnerable to irritation similar to chafing in the summer.”