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It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, phrases like “social distancing”, “circuit breaker”, and “community cases” weren’t part of our everyday vocabulary. If you’ve been a responsible mask-wearing citizen during the pandemic, you’ve likely uttered another new word recently too: “maskne”, the pimples caused by wearing a mask frequently.

While incorporating an exfoliating acid into your routine can help treat mask-induced blemishes, the same tip might not work for those with sensitive, easily aggravated skin. That’s because harsh treatments can trigger inflammation in reactive skin, which is the main driver for breakouts.

In search of gentler approaches and alternatives, Daily Vanity reached out to Dr Michelle Wong, an aesthetic doctor from IDS Clinic as well as the founders of some our favourite skincare brands, namely Drunk Elephant, Tatcha, Glow Recipe, The Inkey List, and Herbivore.

Read on to find out more about their easy and effective game plans to treat and prevent maskne. But first, let’s dig a little deeper to learn about the root cause of these breakouts.

What causes maskne?

Maskne Sensitive Skin Concerns

Maskne is really just a new name for something that a number of us have experienced before in our lives – friction-related irritation. These breakouts usually occur on the back, chest, or thighs due to a combination of heat, friction, and sweat getting trapped between skin and fabric.

Dr Michelle Wong says, “The non-porous, occluded mask area traps sebum, perspiration, and condensation from our breath, creating a warm and humid environment that promotes the growth of bacteria on the skin’s surface. When we wear a face mask for hours, it also invariably leads to skin irritation and friction over the lower half of your face.”

On top of that, sensitive skin already has a comprised barrier, which makes it easier for bacteria and dirt to clog up pores and cause breakouts.

How to treat and prevent maskne the gentle way

According to Dr Michelle Wong from IDS Clinic

“Bakuchiol is a plant-derived natural alternative to retinol, without the negative side effects of irritation and dryness. It is suitable for sensitive skin and has anti-acne and anti-ageing properties. For those who are unable to tolerate chemical exfoliants, benzoyl peroxide, and topical retinoids, bakuchiol is a good alternative.”

Maskne Sensitive Skin Ids Skincare

IDS Skincare Blemish Clear (left) contains the active ingredients bakuchiol and niacinamide. It can be applied twice daily to the T-zone and blemish-prone areas. You can also apply an oil-free moisturiser like the IDS Skincare Oil-free Moisturizer (centre) or Kylaz Moisturising Blemish Defence (right) to protect and hydrate the skin, especially at high-friction areas such as the cheeks, nose bridge, and jawline.

I also try to prevent clogged pores by applying a lightweight moisturiser at high friction points and going make-up free under the mask.”

According to Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant

“First, avoid the big categories of irritants: fragrances/dyes, essential oils, drying alcohols, and harsh surfactants, like SLS/sodium lauryl sulfate. Cutting these out will help reduce environmental irritation that can fuel infections within the pore, which ultimately lead to breakouts.

Next, try scaling back to a PM-only cleansing routine with a gentle cleanser, and opt for a water-rinse only in the morning. It’s very tempting to wash your face multiple times a day when you’re dealing with these types of breakouts, but this only strips the skin barrier of the substances that help keep it soothed and intact.

If sweat is an issue, resist the urge to wash your face with a foaming cleanser mid-day. Instead, try a low-to-no surfactant formula like a soothing micellar water or milk cleanser on a gentle cotton pad to refresh skin, then reapply a calming moisturiser.”

Maskne Sensitive Skin Drunk Elephant

“Since skin is in a reactive state, scale back on actives until your skin has calmed. Look for more nourishing moisturisers like our Lala Retro Whipped Cream (left) or Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil (right). Applying a balm to the areas that get rubbed against the most would reduce friction too.”

According to Victoria Tsai, founder of Tatcha

“Look for gentle yet efficacious formulas that use kind-to-skin ingredients to get the job done. You shouldn’t have to feel or see a product react with your skin to think it’s working!

Maskne Sensitive Skin Tatcha

“To ensure your skin barrier is functioning optimally, apply The Essence (left) after cleansing. It’s an ultra-hydrating skin softener that’s 98.7% double-fermented Hadasei-3. It restores the skin’s moisture levels by up to 150% in moments. The Essence is also naturally rich in lactic acid to help keep skin clear and smooth, and allows any treatment you apply after to work better.

If your skin still needs additional calming comfort, our Indigo Line was formulated for sensitive, reactive, and irritated skin. The Indigo Cream (right) is a fragrance-free, velvety-rich cream that combines natural Japanese indigo extract and colloidal oatmeal to bring skin back into harmony.”

According to Sarah Lee & Christine Chang, founders of Glow Recipe

Maskne Sensitive Skin Glow Recipe

“For those with sensitive skin, the key is to use products that can help reduce breakouts while supporting your skin barrier. After you remove your mask, start by cleansing with a formula that won’t strip your skin of moisture. Our Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser (left) was made without harsh sulfates, so it cleanses skin while still providing amazing hydration due to the hyaluronic acid in the formula.

After cleansing, using an oil-free moisturiser like Watermelon Glow Pink Juice Moisturizer (centre) will soothe and cool skin immediately due to the watermelon extract and gel-like texture, botanical extract, and watermelon.

We love encapsulated retinol, especially for sensitive skin, because this amazing ingredient releases over time in micro-doses to reduce the sensitivity and inflammation that occurs with traditional retinols. A great option is the Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask (right) that pairs encapsulated retinol with soothing and calming ingredients like avocado, matcha, and chamomile.

Be consistent with your gentle routine to ensure that you maximize all the skincare benefits while your skin is recovering, and to prevent new breakouts from forming.”

According to Colette Newberry, co-founder of The Inkey List

Maskne Sensitive Skin The Inkey List

“I have quite sensitive skin myself, so I try to clean and treat my skin without causing irritation. Proper cleansing is so important due to the increased oil and sweat under a face mask, so I use The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm (left) which isn’t just gentle enough for sensitive skin, but also a great cleanser to remove all traces of makeup and grime. I would then ensure my face is hydrated using the Hyaluronic Acid (right).”

Maskne Sensitive Skin The Inkey List 2

“Then comes the magic… The Inkey List Niacinamide (left) is a key ingredient to treat maskne that’s suitable for sensitive skin. Using this as a serum to target breakouts, minimise pores, and decongest the skin is a must. Plus, it contains 1% hyaluronic acid to keep the skin from drying out. Lastly, I would use a lightweight moisturiser that helps to calm and balance the skin, like The Inkey List Multi-Biotic (right).”

According to Michael Ahmad, Senior Director of Global Education at Herbivore

“When it comes to treating maskne, less is definitely more. Keep things extra gentle and minimal to ensure that you don’t trigger a secondary reaction from over-treating your skin.”

Maskne Sensitive Skin Herbivore

“A great way to start your routine is to use the Pink Cloud Rosewater + Tremella Creamy Jelly Cleanser (left, not available in Singapore yet). This dreamy cleanser uses plant-based surfactants to gently cleanse the skin, while tremella mushroom attracts and retains moisture. It also has rosewater to soothe sensitive skin.

You can follow up with our Lapis Facial Oil (right). This oil contains azulene, which kills bacteria, soothes dry irritated skin, and reduces the appearance of redness.”

More tips to help prevent maskne

Wash your reusable face masks properly

Maskne Sensitive Skin Mask

Dr Michelle Wong says, “Don’t neglect your mask hygiene. Wash reusable cloth masks with gentle soap after every use to prevent the accumulation of bacteria, perspiration and saliva on the masks.”

Tiffany Masterson also suggested washing your mask in a mild cleanser like Drunk Elephant’s Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser. “That way you can be sure that the harsh cleansing components and fragrant ingredients found in laundry detergent don’t become a contributing factor to your maskne!” she explains.

Apart from keeping your mask clean, Sarah Lee recommends using masks made of breathable cotton rather than a synthetic or occlusive material. “For those who need to wear a mask for long periods of time, consider carrying an extra, clean mask that you can swap out mid-day,” Tiffany Masterson adds.

Wear lighter or no makeup under your face mask

Maskne Sensitive Skin Makeup

Sarah Lee also mentioned, “You should also consider skipping makeup as it could potentially clog your pores under a mask. Instead, focus on a skincare-only approach.” Dr Michelle Wong agreed, saying, “If makeup is necessary, try to use less occlusive loose powders and avoid heavy foundations.”

Watch your diet

Maskne Sensitive Skin Diet

You may have elevated your baking skills during the #stayhome period, but we’ve got some bad news to share. Your cupcakes and cookies you’ve been bingeing on may be causing more breakouts. Oh yes, bubble tea too.

Dr Michelle Wong explains, “Studies have shown that high-glycemic index food is associated with acne. Examples of high-GI food include refined sugars such as white rice, white bread, fruit juice, bubble tea, and soft drinks.”

“Cutting out high-GI food is not only good for your waistline, but also beneficial to your skin! High-GI food raises our blood sugar levels quickly and triggers the release a hormone called insulin. Excess insulin stimulates our oil glands to produce more sebum, which increases the likelihood of clogged pores and acne,” she continues.

So while you can’t change your sensitive skin, you can help prevent the onslaught of maskne by tweaking your skincare routine, diet, and keeping up your mask hygiene habits.