By Wedad Z. Mostafa, Dermatology Professor, Cairo University and Consultant Oasis Clinics

Although staying home and practicing social distancing are recommended to minimize exposure to COVID-19, the truth of the matter is that many of us need to work, shop, exercise, and interact with others. In all of these cases, wearing a face mask has become essential, mandatory even; evidence suggests that it reduces the chance of the virus spreading, whether or not the person wearing it is in fact infected.

Masks vary in terms of material; they are either surgical masks, N-95 masks, made from a fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers, or reusable, fabric masks. While surgical masks are mostly made from a soft synthetic or non-woven fabric — some are made from foam material — N-95 masks are firmer. Both have an enforcement metal piece or sticky bands to ensure occlusion for safety. However, these protective components exaggerate the humidity produced by breathing and talking.

Some of us may develop allergic contact dermatitis to one kind of mask or the other, due to the materials used. However, most people will develop irritant dermatitis or, put simply, irritation. Irritation can be caused by friction when coupled with humidity. This results in itching, which could develop into scratches or wounds.

Well-fitted masks made of cotton are less likely to produce dermatitis, unless the person wearing them is allergic to a special color or dye. Multilayered cotton masks made from fabric used in making T-shirts are by far less likely to produce irritation or rashes than masks made from polyester, nylon or rayon.

In the heat of summer, irritation coupled with scratching and sweating can produce rashes. Those who suffer prior acne or rosacea are most at risk of developing a rash and hence should contact their dermatologist for solutions. De novo pimples i.e. new break-outs, can occur underneath the area covered by the mask, which is particularly rich in oil glands and associated moisture, a consequence of sweating, breathing and talking.

To avoid or minimize irritation from face masks, here are a few tips that may be helpful:

  • Avoid wearing makeup. Wear a well-fitted mask, neither loose nor tight, to achieve protection while preventing skin agitation.
  • Wash your face with a mild facial cleanser or soap before wearing a mask and immediately after removing it. A facial moisturizer can protect against skin damage from increased friction.
  • In areas where there is continuous rubbing — over the bridge of nose, chin or behind ears — it is recommended to apply a zinc oxide cream before putting on the mask to cushion the area and guard against chafing.
  • In case of mild irritation, a hydrocortisone cream may be applied onto the irritated area for a day or two.
  • In case of skin abrasions, which may occur after prolonged hours of wearing a mask, creams containing Aloe Vera and pantothenic acid should provide a quick relief. It’s then that you need to schedule an appointment with your dermatologist.

At all times, make sure you are breathing in and out freely without feeling distress or dizziness, and avoid exercising heavily while wearing a mask.

Stay safe and sanitized.