Illustration: Lily Lambie-Kiernan
Back in December, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam told a press conference that some of the measures we’ve been taking to stop coronavirus transmission will probably be here to stay for many years. These included the widespread use of hand sanitiser (great news for Big Anti-Bac), and face masks. This is a good thing, as this stuff can help prevent the spread of lots of respiratory diseases, but it does mean that those of us afflicted by the curse of “maskne” have got a bit of a battle on our hands.
Obviously, it goes without saying that wearing a mask is an unavoidable part of being a decent member of society who gives a shit about other people and their safety (unless of course, you have a medical condition which exempts you from wearing one). But if you’re breaking out in spots and acne underneath your mask, and are finding these skin concerns difficult to deal with on top of Everything Else, I have to say: I sympathise. I’m lucky in that I’ve never had particularly problematic skin up until this point. I can get a little bit oily sometimes, and often erupt in spots around my mouth and chin when I’m on my period, but in general, my issues have stopped there. Or, at least they did, until masks became commonplace. When I wear a mask for a prolonged period of time, I can generally feel spots brewing just hours later, often painfully. Having tried a few different solutions, with varying degrees of success, I thought I would ask some experts – a medical dermatologist, a vegan skincare brand owner, a facialist and holistic skin coach – for their opinions on how best to deal with maskne, considering that the cause won’t be going away anytime soon.
I hit up Dr. Kristina Semkova, a consultant dermatologist at London’s Cadogan Clinic, to explain why maske happens in the first place. “It’s caused by an accumulation of increased heat and friction caused by the mask rubbing against the skin and occlusion where the skin cannot breathe,” she says. “Additionally, moisture formed by the trapped air from talking, breathing and sweating make the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. The cold weather causes our skin to become dry and more sensitive to friction and prone to inflammation. All these factors cause damage to the skin barrier, making the skin more susceptible to breakouts.”
Dr. Kristina also notes that your mask itself could be affecting your skin. “Function must definitely come over fashion!” she insists. “The mask should be the right size and fit for the face, it shouldn’t be too tight or too loose, in order to avoid friction. Cotton or silk masks are better than polyester materials which are non-breathable. Also, ensure there are no added chemical substances within the masks. Whilst some manufacturers may claim better antiviral activity, chemicals in masks stay in very close contact with the skin for prolonged periods, and may seriously aggravate the skin.” It’s also important to make sure your mask is as clean as possible – Dr. Kristina recommends a machine wash after every use, with a fragrance-free detergent and without fabric softener. While it’s important to consult a GP or dermatologist when you can if your maskne shows no signs of letting up, there are some over the counter ingredients that can help. Look out for “creams and lotions containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or zinc,” Dr. Kristina says. “Make sure you use these products sparingly as they may dry the skin and irritate it if used excessively. Try applying them initially once every two to three days and then gradually build up the frequency of application.”
There aren’t many people who could claim to be better-versed in skincare than someone who actually makes the products we slap on our faces, so I was also keen to speak to Roshanne Dorsett, the founder of the skincare brand The Glowcery. The Glowcery prioritises ingredients that “you’d typically find in your fridges, in your smoothies or at your local greengrocers,” and Roshanne highlights one in particular which is useful for treating maskne: “Hemp seed oil is a great ingredient to soothe maskne. It is anti-inflammatory, deeply moisturising and non-comedogenic, meaning it will nourish and soothe your skin without clogging your pores,” she explains. And of course, like any good skincare brand, The Glowcery itself has something that can help: the brand’s Clean Greens superfood facial serum contains cold-pressed hemp seed oil and 18 additional moisturising fruit and vegetable oils.
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In terms of your wider skincare, Roshanne recommends a methodical routine to help keep the skin in good shape. “Always start any skincare routine with a clean slate,” she advises. Double cleansing involves using an oil-based cleanser to remove daily impurities such as excess oil, grime and makeup, and following up with a water-based cleanser to remove sweat and dirt.”“Incorporating water-based products into your routine, such as toners, essences and serums is key to keeping skin soft and supple. It's also important to use products in the correct order,” Roshanne adds. “Lighter, water-based products should always be applied first, then moisturisers, sealing it all in with heavier ingredients such as oils and butters and then lastly, SPF, even while we’re indoors.”
I would probably gnaw off my little toe with my very own teeth in order to go to a spa for a facial right now, but as that is probably an extreme response, I tried the next best thing, by contacting an expert facialist for her advice on how to sort out maskne.Katie White, a nutritional therapist, holistic therapist, skin coach and the founder of the skincare company re:lax recommends a simple approach to the skin’s routine, particularly for those wearing masks for long periods. “Speaking as a facialist but also as someone with acne-prone skin, who was wearing the mask and visor for 12 hours a day at work (spoiler: I didn't get maskne), I would firstly recommend trying to keep skin clean from make-up,” she says. She also suggests a gentle daily cleanser, an acid exfoliator with BHA twice a week and a detoxifying mask once a week. Facial techniques can also be useful, she says, recommending “facial massage and gua sha are both amazing for breakouts – if your skin feels too inflamed or sore, just focus on working down the sides of the neck to start. Work around breakouts, moving from the centre to the outside of the face and down the neck.“For more guidance, you can check out re:lax Skin Society where we share lots of at home tutorials and workshops,” Katie adds. “I would also recommend creating a little ice pack for any breakouts that are very sore and swollen, this will help take the swelling down quickly.” Lastly, Katie offers a good alternative to the temptation offered by pawing at spots. “When you want to pick, choose a treatment such as an exfoliator, mask or a little bit of massage instead.”