As the pandemic stretches into 2022, we’re growing increasingly aware of the effects that COVID-19 has on multiple parts of the body beyond our lungs.
From “COVID toes” that sees swelling and discolouration to “pandemic hair loss” that’s further exacerbated by daily stressors, people have reported skin symptoms that can appear soon after infection or arise later.
This dermal issue is now termed as “COVID skin”.
What is “COVID skin”?
View this post on Instagram
Earlier in January, British beauty journalist Sali Hughes posted a video on Instagram that seemed to resonate with many. In the video, she shared that she had contracted COVID-19 over Christmas in 2021, causing her skin to go “bananas”.
She remarked that her skin started to sting and feel incredibly itchy about a day after testing positive for the virus. Before contracting the virus, she never had sensitive skin that’s prone to irritation, which is why she was shocked and perplexed by the effects.
She couldn’t use skincare actives like tretinoin as it stung her skin upon application. And when she reached for her usual morning skincare products, she would experience a brief burning sensation that felt uncomfortable.
After posting about it on Instagram, hundreds of comments echoed her experience, claiming that COVID skin is a real thing.
“OMG! This is exactly what has been happening to me for a couple of months now. I kept calling it my Covid face! Yesterday it was so bad I woke up and the right side was swollen,” one follower wrote.
Sali has noted that her post “in no way constitutes medical advice, it is simply based on my own experience. Consult a doctor if in any doubt around any symptoms.”
But is “COVID skin” a real thing?
To find out if “COVID skin” is indeed a cause for concern, we reached out to aesthetic doctor, Dr Rachel Ho, for her expertise.
In short, “COVID skin” does exist. “One of the dermatological manifestations of COVID-19 is a rash,” she says. “The pattern of COVID-19 rashes is quite varied – from urticaria, vesicles (blisters) to maculopapular rashes.”
These names may sound confusing, but they are simply descriptions of different types of rashes. “Urticaria presents as red, itchy welts. Vesicles are fluid-filled blisters. A maculopapular rash refers to a red rash with flat and raised parts,” Dr Ho clarifies.
According to Dr Ho, “approximately 20% of patients infected with COVID-19 develop skin reactions, including rashes.” This is based on a few published studies on skin reactions related to the virus.
Furthermore, Dr Ho saw an increase in the number of patients who have reported said skin sensitivities. “A handful of my patients have developed skin sensitivity and rashes during their COVID infection. These sensations and rashes resolved spontaneously within a week,” she shares.
And is it possible to develop rashes from other viral illnesses?
It also makes sense if you notice changes in your skin when you catch other viral illnesses. “Viral infections, in general, can also cause a rash,” Dr Ho adds.
“This type of rash is called a viral exanthem and is due to the infection or toxins released by the virus.” It can also be triggered by the body’s immunological response to the virus.
A couple of common examples of viruses that cause viral exanthems are “pox and measles”.
A viral infection isn’t just the only trigger for skin issues, though. “Stress has been linked to urticaria or hives and is colloquially known as ‘stress rash’,” Dr Ho shares. “The appearance is that of raised, red, itchy rashes that disappear in a few days to weeks.”
Turns out, emotional stress, psychological stress, as well as sleep deprivation can affect the way our body regulates our hormones and immune system. “Under stress, there is an increase in the histamine and inflammatory response in the skin, causing ‘stress rash’,” she leads on.
Skincare products to turn to & ingredients to steer clear of if you have “COVID skin”
If you’re currently experiencing “COVID skin” or rashes in general, Dr Ho says you should choose anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide and skin-strengthening ones such as lipids and ceramides.
Dr Ho adds that you should steer clear of acids and retinoids when you’re experiencing “COVID skin”. “These may transiently disrupt the skin barrier and worsen any irritation,” she explains.
“The key is don’t do very much. Three steps: just a cleanser, a calming serum, and plenty of barrier-protecting moisturisers,” Sali Hughes advised in her video. “That’s what I did twice a day, and as I said, I kept layering on the moisturiser whenever I was kind of itchy or red and it worked a treat. Truly, I was back to normal very quickly.”
One of the gentlest cleansers we’ve tried is undoubtedly Aveeno’s Calm + Restore Nourishing Oat Cleanser. Formulated with soothing Feverfew, it gently lifts away dirt and impurities as it preserves your skin’s moisture barrier.
A barrier-repairing serum we’d recommend is Paula’s Choice’s Omega+ Complex Serum, a lotion-like formula that’s infused with ceramides as well as omega 3, 6, and 9 oils to nourish your skin.
As for moisturiser, we’re currently loving the Bioderma Sensibio Defensive, a cream that replenishes moisture and strengthens the skin with biomimetic glycerin and squalane – two ingredients naturally found in the body.
If you have particularly red, angry patches of skin, try layering La Roche-Posay’s Cicaplast Baume B5 on top of your moisturiser. It has a rich, nourishing texture that delivers soothing madecassoside as well as a blend of copper, zinc, and manganese for optimal skin barrier recovery.
Do check out our list of recommended eczema creams to help with dryness, itching, and irritation too.
Featured image credit: xFrame.io