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4 Easy Steps to Fix Skin Problems Caused by COVID-19 Face Masks

4 Easy Steps to Fix Skin Problems Caused by COVID-19 Face Masks

Face masks are in! And for good reason. To help protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends that we all wear one, anytime it might be hard to stay at least six feet away from other people. 

But as a skincare professional, I have to be honest. Whether it’s an N95 surgical mask, a homemade cloth mask, or just a bandana tied below your eyes – barrier masks are hard on your skin.

One recent study found that 97% of front line healthcare workers in China experienced skin damage from using protective facial masks. Their symptoms ranged from minor facial dryness to serious irritation, painful peeling, and even microscopic fissures on their nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin.

I expect that many Americans will soon report similar problems. Those battling acne and rosacea will complain about more breakout and blotchy redness. People with eczema or psoriasis will have a harder time preventing outbreaks. And those over 35 will notice their skin feeling dryer, with fine lines and wrinkles starting to appear.

Luckily, there are 4 simple steps you can take to protect your skin during this uncertain time.


#1: Cleanse Your Face Twice a Day, No Excuses

Absolutely wash your face twice a day. Whether you’re a man or a woman. Regardless of your age. Do it first thing in the morning, to remove excess oil that has accumulated overnight. Then do it again before bed, to wash away dirt that has built up during the day. 

Cleansing takes on extra importance if you use a face mask, because the simple act of breathing into that fabric will trap bacteria. With nowhere else to go, it’s going to settle on your skin.  

Add some sweat (because masks often cause your face to perspire), maybe a little sticky saliva, runny nose dribble, even the makeup you applied earlier in the day.

Wow! No wonder masks can cause skin problems – they lock in a lot of nasty stuff!

Pores can get clogged, even to the point that you develop what dermatologists call acne vulgaris. Long after adolescence, you can end up with blackheads, whiteheads, and pus-filled pimples.

That breakout, in turn, can lead to itching, scratching, and full-blow infection.

So wash your face! And wash your face masks, frequently and properly.

Unfortunately, many soaps and facial scrubs are TOO good at their job. They don’t just get rid of dirt. They strip away natural, healthy oil, and create unwanted dryness.

That’s rough on any complexion, but it’s extra bad if you have sensitive skin, mature skin, or if you frequently wear a face mask. Your complexion gets too dry and tiny tears (or gaps) develop between the cells on your face.

To get around this problem, choose a gentle cleanser made with pure ingredients. For example, look for a product that contains vegetable glycerine. It’s a natural “emollient” that will fill in those gaps with a slightly fatty substance. Your skin will stay smoother, softer, and more protected.

Other good ingredients to look for are jojoba oil, rosehip, olive oil, chamomile extract, lavender oil, and tea tree oil.

Use lukewarm water to create a lather, but don’t scrub too hard. Use your fingertips to make circular motions all over your face, paying special attention to areas abused by makeup, a face mask, or eyeglass frames.

Continue for at least a full minute. Then rinse well and pat dry with a clean towel. Never rub!



#2: Use a Skin Toner for the Final Step in Cleansing.

Facial soaps work by opening up your pores and sweeping away dirt. But whether it’s from makeup, sunscreen, or a face mask – some greasy residue is still going to be there. So I suggest you take your cleansing to the next level by using a toner after every washing.

A toner will reach deeper down, removing oil and dirt that your soap missed. And it will unclog pores before they start to infect. That’s particularly helpful if you regularly use something as damaging as a face mask.

Toners also close your pores back up, and help insulate your skin from outside impurities.

They condition and nourish your face, temporarily tightening your pores. They also offer deep hydration, giving the skin temporary elasticity and a more youthful appearance. 

Different toners address different skincare challenges. So do some online research, and find one that’s right for you.

For example, if you have acne-prone skin, try a salicylic acid-based toner. Or use one that contains witch hazel, to get rid of excess oil without over-drying your skin.

If you have hypersensitive, dry, or mature skin, then look for a toner that contains antioxidants and hydrating ingredients like glycerine, hyaluronic acid, rose water, or orange blossom extract.

Remember to apply toner right after you cleanse. Certainly no more than a minute after you pat dry (because you want to penetrate as far down as possible while your pores are still open).

Most toners are clear, light liquids. You can literally sprinkle them on your clean hands and pat your face gently. But I know some people prefer to apply with a cotton ball.

Personally, I find cotton swabs a little rough on my skin, so I just spritz on my favorite straight from the bottle.


#3: Feed Your Skin with a Facial Serum

The next step should be a serum. But what exactly is a serum and how is it different from a moisturizer? After all, both are meant to work like facial armor, protecting healthy skin from environmental assaults (like a face mask).

The real difference is what serums do NOT contain. They skip all greasy ingredients, and leave behind just ultra-active agents: antioxidants (to revive damaged or aging skin), peptides (to stimulate collagen production), and skin brighteners (to fade age spots and acne scars).

For people who like numbers: a moisturizer might be made up of around 10% active ingredients. A serum will contain 70% or more

So despite hours under a barrier mask each week, you may notice your face actually looking better than ever after using a serum. Fewer spots and pimples, less noticeable scarring, tighter pores, dimming dark circles, fewer fine lines, less inflammation, and less redness.

In fact, one study compared the effects of using a facial moisturizer alone versus a serum along with a moisturizer. The results found significantly less dryness, less redness, less skin irritation, and increased skin softness in women who used a serum plus a moisturizer for just two weeks.

The first two ingredient I look for in a serum are rosehip and vitamin C (often called ascorbic acid). Both stimulate the production of new collagen (a protein that gives skin its youthful bounce and texture). They both help build skin immunity. And together they have incomparable anti-aging effects.

Plant concentrates, antioxidants, and skin brighteners are also good: green tea, pomegranate, wild berries, arnica, aloe vera, licorice, vitamin A and/or vitamin E. 

Remember, just a little serum is all you need. Once it’s applied, I always let my favorite sit for several minutes, so my face can fully absorb the nourishment. Only then do I add moisturizer or makeup.

Because serums are so concentrated, I suggest you use one just once a day. Apply every morning, after cleaning and misting with a toner. Or at night, using the serum instead of your usual night cream.

One word of caution: because serums penetrate so fast and so deep, they can irritate very sensitive skin or chronic conditions like eczema and rosacea. If that’s you, then it might be better to cleanse, apply toner, and move straight to a gentle moisturizer.


#4: Apply A Light Moisturizer (Or Maybe Don’t)

I’m not against moisturizers. In fact, I have my own favorite and apply it a few times every week.

Nevertheless, moisturizers often get credit for skincare miracles they cannot perform.

Moisture inside your body is constantly trying to escape. This is called transepidermal water loss. To save you from complete dehydration, your skin tries to act like a sponge, soaking up the moisture and holding it in.

But the skin can only do its job when the surrounding environment is clean and moist. When it gets too dry and dirty (like it does under a face mask), the “sponge” dries out and stops working.

So especially now, when we’re almost all using face masks, we’ve got to accept that no cream can add real moisture to your skin. The most we can hope for is that a moisturizer will prevent excessive water loss.

Most high-end creams try to do this with glycerine, because it’s a moisture magnet. In fact, it holds in so much water that it can sometimes make your skin look a little shiny and feel slightly sticky.

That explains why, these days, a handful of facial moisturizers brag about being made with only lighter oils. But light oils oxidize quickly. That means, in the presence of light or heat, they start to break down chemically. And become a breeding ground for bacteria. Not good.

Because face masks tend to heat up your face, they create the perfect place for this “spoilage” to occur.

So why not consider turning to a less expensive cream? Something made with thicker, fattier ingredients, like petrolatum (a refined form of old-fashion petroleum jelly). Cosmetic chemists say that they do not clog pores and can prevent up to 98% water loss.

Final note: as the last step in your morning skincare routine, you could opt for a daily sunscreen instead of a moisturizer. A higher SPF is better, but no higher than SPF 30. At that point, you’re blocking 97% of damaging sun rays.

Many sunscreens are now added to color foundations and called tinted moisturizers. I like these products because they’re easy to apply and lightly conceal any minor blemishes or inflammation.


What’s the Takeaway?

As barrier masks become more commonplace, your skin is paying a high price for necessary health protection. So be smart and take care of your complexion. A healthy diet, moderate exercise, relaxation, and hydration will all pay off. Good skincare products will, too. 

Use these four skincare products daily, in this order: Cleanser, Toner, Serum and then a Moisturizer (or an SPF Tinted Moisturizer).

You can choose to eliminate the moisturizer, especially if you have fairly trouble-free skin. (An active-ingredient serum will do more to nourish your skin, anyway.)  

Sadly, fancy packaging and high prices do not guarantee quality. So educate yourself, read labels, and avoid products that contains dangerous ingredients.

Stay well. Always remember: healthy is beauty, and beauty is health.


Lola Benavidez is an esthetician in Los Angeles.

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