Why Is My Surgical Mask Causing Me to Break Out?

Why Is My Surgical Mask Causing Me to Break Out?

Your skin is adjusting to masks being the new normal and you should too


After a long shift at work, there’s an unspeakable relief in finally being free from the layers of masks, gloves, and other PPE; until you face the mirror to witness what was once your pristine skin. It must be dispiriting to see a splotchy, acne-ridden face which you’re sure is caused by wearing surgical masks for hours on end.

If this happened a year ago, remedying breakouts wouldn’t be a problem, but now time for an extensive skincare routine is a luxury.

It’s not a hopeless situation though. The treatment plan for pimples has stayed the same: discover the source, and treat it as necessary.

This article will help you narrow down the cause of your mask-induced acne, and show you anr easy skincare routine to bring your skin back to normal.

Why do surgical masks cause me to break out?

For people suffering from perioral dermatitis, the drastic change in humidity is the primary cause of outbreaks. For others, the emergence of that red angry pimple means that the skin’s natural ability to regulate build-up sweat, oil, and dead skin cells has been compromised. The warmth of your breath, unable to escape from the mask, played a big role in stirring your skin into an uproar, but it takes more than that to cause an acne outbreak.

As you will find out, it can be anything from bacteria to hormones, and surprisingly, the mask itself. We’ve listed down the culprits that might answer why you’re breaking out under that mask

Culprit 1: Bacteria

If the only change in your lifestyle has been the new practice of wearing masks and you have not made any changes to your diet or skincare products, then bacteria growth might be the cause behind your outbreaks.

The skin’s natural defense against bacterial colonization is known as the acid mantle It is made out of a thin film of dead skin cells, sweat, and sebum. It needs to maintain a mildly acidic pH level of 4-6 to protect against pathogens and irritants, as well as the skin’s internal dehydration.

Trapped in a warm, humid, and airless environment of a surgical mask, the acid mantle pH level is disturbed. As the pH level veers towards alkalinity (pH 7 and higher), the skin becomes more vulnerable to an outbreak of the bad strain of Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), the bacteria that causes pimples. The increased humidity puts into overdrive the production of sebum, which P. acnes feeds on, causing inflammation in surrounding skin cells, and eventually, pimples.

If you’re working in low-risk environments, try switching out your surgical masks for a DIY cloth mask with a coffee filter insert. It allows for more breathability, and thus lower the humidity levels. However, do take note that daily washing and changing of the cloth mask is needed to keep them hygienic.

Culprit 2: Stress

A sudden acne breakout when you’re not usually acne-prone might be caused by stress.

It’s tough working in high-pressure situations and not to mention having to keep your distance from your loved ones due to the fear of exposing them to danger. So in times of high stress like this, the body compensates by releasing the stress-hormone, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH).


CRH ramps up oil production in the skin, and compounded with the humidity levels from wearing masks, it can cause a smattering of pimples.

Unfortunately, this stress-exacerbated acne will last relative to your exposure to stressors. If it is possible, once you’re done with work, treat yourself to a relaxing evening before sleep. Light some candles, do some light activities to engage your mind and distract it from the stressors. Most importantly, try to get as much rest as possible to help soothe the stress.

Culprit 3: Contact dermatitis

Do you have red, itchy, and burning rashes?

Do they appear along cheeks, jawline, even near the ear?

Did they appear after wearing a surgical mask?

If you answered yes to all of that, there’s a high probability it’s contact dermatitis.

[note]In the SARS outbreak of 2004, a case was reported of a nurse wearing a surgical mask causing acne, itching, and rashes. A study concluded it was mask contact dermatitis, not acne.[/note]

Unlike acne caused by blocked pores, contact dermatitis is a reaction to irritants that come in contact with the skin. The study revealed that formaldehyde was one such irritant and that it was present in certain surgical masks, N95 masks, as well as reusable fabric masks.

If you suspect that you are experiencing contact dermatitis, switch to a different brand of masks if available. For a mild case, rashes should then disappear, but if it persists, get a doctor’s prescription for a steroid cream or anti-inflammatory medication. Applying a cold compress several times a day will also relieve itching but do wrap the compress in a towel first to prevent ice burns.

Culprit 4: Acne Mechanica

Acne mechanica, unlike typical acne, is caused by infection from P.acne bacteria, which is caused by friction and everything that comes along with it: pressure, excess heat, and rubbing. It’s common among athletes who wear sweaty, constricting gear like pads and helmets that don’t allow the skin to breathe.

Likewise, wearing a tight mask that constantly rubs on your jaw and cheeks results in sweat being trapped in the pores. Filled with sebum, they start out as tiny bumps that develop into pimples. Unlike dermatitis, acne mechanica isn’t itchy and can be easily solved. Just make sure that your mask is properly fitted and stays in place.

If the mask is constantly shifting, it is rubbing along more parts of your skin and causing more friction. Remember, the mask should be snug but not too tight that you end up damaging your skin.

How do I minimize breakouts?

After identifying the causes and taking steps to not further aggravate your skin, we now need to work on letting our skin heal and protecting it from future damage. The key to remember here is that “less is more”. We are going to go back to the basics with a time-conscious simplified skincare routine to help restore your clear skin

Step 1: Cleanse with a gentle cleanser

To start your acne remedy routine, look for a pH-balanced cleanser. This has the same pH level of your skin, which contrary to popular belief, is naturally acidic. The skin needs to maintain a pH level of 4-6 to fight against acne-causing bacteria and keep it moisturized.

Cleansers with salicylic acid or glycolic acid as the key ingredient help to slough off dead skin cells and unclog pores with the additional benefit of hastening the healing process of damaged skin.

Many acne outbreaks have been overcome with the use of 2% salicylic acid Stridex pads. These pads are perfect for a quick, midday cleansing when you’re feeling oily but don’t have the time for a thorough wash.

While an oil-free face will feel immaculate, be careful not to go overboard! Excessive cleansing strips moisture and causes your skin to produce more sebum as a form of compensation, thus defeating its purpose.

Step 2: Moisturize

Moisturizing helps to hydrate the skin and promote the healing of acne scars. It also signals to your skin that there is sufficient hydration and excess sebum production is not needed. Moisturizing is best done while the skin is damp and fresh from cleansing. The dampness helps for better moisturizer absorption and locks in more hydration.

Since the key is to maintain breathability for the skin, skip the heavy moisturizers and go for one that is lightweight and, non-comedogenic, like the Aquaphor Healing ointment to avoid clogging up our pores. The healing ointment helps create a protective barrier on the skin and allows the flow of excess fluid and oxygen while retaining moisture.

For intensive moisturization needs, the Centella Asiatica in CICA creams might be for you. Centella Asiatica, derived from Tiger Grass, is rich in amino acids and antioxidants that boost hydration and speed up wound healing. It also helps that CICA is easily absorbed by the skin and its soothing effect is apparent when dry, sensitive skin is visibly hydrated and glowing.

[bq]The mask’s humidity dehydrates the cheeks, nose, jawline, and around the mouth, so be generous with moisturizer in these areas because they need it most![/bq]

Step 3: Protect your skin

Stick a hydrocolloid plaster on pustules or a raging pimple for a quick relief. This sucks the oil from the pimple, creates a seal to keep the oil from escaping, and cools the nerve endings to prevent itching. It also helps to contain the bacteria from the pimples if they burst and prevents the bacteria from spreading to other parts of the skin.

Alternatively, you can use Saniderm to protect yourself from acne mechanica. This breathable clear bandage can shield the skin from friction along the mask line where the mask digs in, and provides medical-grade healing to pre-existing lesions.

Step 4: Avoid makeup and even chapsticks

Forgo your daily make-up routine. Foundation limits the skin’s breathability, and clog up your pores if it is not properly cleaned. Combine this with being trapped all day under a mask, it will only aggravate the growth of bacterial acne.

Skip the oily chapstick too – the wax transfers onto your skin when it comes into contact with the mask and clogs the pores around the mouth area. Instead, use Aquaphor’s Lip Repair Ointment . It has shea butter and chamomile that moisturizes and soothes dried lips, and best of all it’s light and isn’t as greasy so it doesn’t stick to your mask and transfer onto your skin.

Step 5: Get some Vitamin D

Before stay-at-home orders and dealing with a global pandemic became part of our lives, our Vitamin D quotas were fulfilled by soaking up sunshine for 30 minutes to several hours a day. It’s a natural acne remedy thanks to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

However, there are ways to supplement our limited exposure to the sun. Get your daily dose of vitamin D goodness without the sun damage by taking Vitamin D supplements, or incorporating it in your diet by eating fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon; beef liver, orange juice, and cereals.


Acne outbreak in times of a global pandemic is totally normal. We need to take better care of ourselves, not just physically, but mentally too. Spending our me time by taking care of our skin can become a de-stressing activity that helps to boost our self-esteem and make us feel better about ourselves.

While it may seem tedious, a little TLC can go a long way. Hopefully, with these tips, by the time you fling the last mask to the garbage by its earloops, you’ll be ready to greet the world again with a big smile on and clear glowing skin.

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