You are not alone if you have developed blemishes from wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The condition is medically known as acne mechanica, and has long afflicted motorcyclists, healthcare workers, construction workers and athletes, among others. To understand why more people are experiencing this now, we spoke to Singaporean Dr Teo Wan Lin. The founder of TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre, Dr Teo also shared useful measures for alleviating the condition.
“Acne mechanica is a type of acne that is exacerbated by the process of occlusion. Simply put, it’s a phenomenon observed in individuals who need to wear facial coverings or headgear, such as protective helmets, for extended periods of time,” she explained.
“Acne then develops in areas of the skin that are in contact with fabric linings and straps of headgear. Heat, sweat, sebum and humidity easily make those areas a breeding ground for bacteria – namely Propionibacterium acnes, also known as P. acnes. This is what causes common acne. In the case of face mask usage, acne is usually clustered around the nose and mouth region,” she observed.
Since we can’t avoid mask-wearing, which is still mandatory in public spaces as a measure to contain the devastating coronavirus, what we can do is pay more attention to skincare. On this note, Dr Teo emphasised that the fundamental step is cleansing.
In addition to removing the impurities that encourage bacterial growth, Dr Teo pointed out that “cleansing is also a way for us to maintain the skin’s healthy microbiome level”.
If your automatic response to blemishes is to “attack” them with an arsenal of anti-acne products, think again. Dr Teo warned that some ingredients such as salicylic acid, tea tree oil and benzoyl peroxide may irritate the skin, and thus potentially cause complications. In fact, benzoyl peroxide isn’t just harsh, but also bleaches fabrics like those in your mask and clothes. Dr Teo suggested reaching for products that soothe, hydrate and protect the skin instead.
Speaking of fabric, let’s consider the root of the problem: the mask. Breathable and natural fibres such as cotton and linen are recommended over single-use surgical masks (which should be prioritised for healthcare and essential workers anyway). However, reusable masks need to be washed and sanitised regularly if they are to protect us from microdroplets. If you use a water-resistant mask, be sure that the synthetic material has antimicrobial properties too.
We took comfort in knowing that when properly cared for, acne flares typically subside within a week. Take note if your blemishes appear as fine bumps though – they could be caused by fungus. And if they are unusually inflamed and persistent, there’s a possibility that it could be caused by Gram-negative bacteria. In both cases, Dr Teo recommends a visit to the clinic.
For more information, visit Dr TWL Dermaceuticals’ website.