Daily Mask Changes and Texting Your Facialist: Welcome to the Summer of Maskne

“I had everything under control. Until this.”

Photograph via iStock.
Coronavirus 2020

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Jennie Ryon had it all down to a precise science. Her skincare routine, that is. The 29-year-old Navy Yard resident suffers from cystic acne, but through the wonders of monthly facials and a multi-step cleansing and toning and moisturizing process, she’d been able to mostly keep her face clear. 

And, at first, it actually seemed like the pandemic might be a good thing for her skin. She wasn’t wearing makeup and had plenty of time to dedicate to a rigorous skincare curriculum and a good diet. “I had noticed, wow, my skin looks the best it’s looked in a really long time,” says Ryon. “I had everything under control. Until this.”

“This” refers to the regularity with which Ryon and others are now going outdoors, as opposed to the beginning of the pandemic. And “this” also refers to the higher frequency of mask-wearing those outdoor trips require. Like many other folks wearing face masks in the middle of summer, Ryon has discovered that her skin reverts back to breakout-happy adolescence when covered in fabric. Yes, we’re talking about maskne.

When pimples began popping up around her nose, mouth, and chin—mask real estate—she decided to up her defense. Ryon now has five cotton masks that she constantly washes so she can wear a clean one each day. She cleans her face before she puts on a mask and then does a double-cleanse after she wears one. And she also texts pictures of her breakouts to her aesthetician for advice, naturally. 

A 25-year-old NoMa resident who works in communications (and asked to remain anonymous) has taken it a step further. After seeing an increase in cystic acne, pimples, blackheads—“the whole party,” she says dryly—she ordered linen masks for more breathability, and began bringing multiple, clean face coverings out on errands. If she feels herself starting to break a sweat between CVS and Safeway, she’ll pop on a new one. 

It turns out you may have more to worry about than just breakouts the likes of which you haven’t seen since Justin Bieber’s first album dropped. Mask-wearing can also lead to rosacea flare-ups and rashes, says Chevy Chase dermatologist Samantha Toerge. 

These issues can be caused by the mask rubbing against your face or creating a moist environment that clogs your pores, she says, but it also doesn’t help that we’re all on edge right now. “We’re seeing tons of stress rashes, tons of acne, tons of rosacea,” says Toerge. “A lot of people are like ‘My skin’s been perfect for five years, and why now?’ Usually stress is a part of that.”

Okay, so what to do when you and your skin are frazzled? “Obviously, everybody has to manage their stress differently,” says Bethesda dermatologist Ann Lindgren, “but in terms of taking care of the skin itself, you kind of go back to the basics.” That means a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser (nothing that stings) and plenty of moisturizer, she says. And as for masks, Lindgren recommends washing them frequently with a hypoallergenic detergent and points out that the American Academy of Dermatology recommends a soft, natural fabric, such as cotton, and a mask that fits your face well to minimize rubbing.

It’s kind of a dark twist that the thing causing you to break out also hides said breakouts. Ryon has found the humor in this, as evidenced by a recent Tweet she posted: “As someone that suffers from hormonal acne, I’m a big fan of wearing masks,” it reads. “I could be breaking out like crazy around my chin and you’d have no idea.”

While it sucks to get a breakout, Ryon says she’d rather do her part and deal with the skin issues as they come. “I’m very pro-mask,” she says. “I’ll suffer the consequences.” 

The 25-year-old who lives in NoMa agrees—sometimes she’ll find herself dreading the act of yet again putting on a zit-inducing mask (especially if she hasn’t done laundry), but she knows it’s the right thing to do. And at least she doesn’t have to see anyone. “I like to joke to my friends that it’s actually a really nice side effect of working from home,” she says. 

So, yes, the mental anguish of staring at a new crop of pimples in the mirror is very, very real. But so are the effects of not wearing a mask during a global crisis. To put it bluntly: “You can deal with the acne or the rosacea or the irritation on the back end,” says Toerge, “and that’s probably better than contracting Covid-19, right?” 

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.