As magical as winter can be, it can also be miserable on your skin if you live in a climate like Boston’s. (It’s hard to feel enchanted by snow along the Charles when it’s seven degrees out and the sidewalk is actively plotting your doom). By January, the bitter winds, icy conditions, and hot, dry interiors have many of us reaching for heavy-duty moisturizers to combat dry, flaky skin.
But now, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have something else to worry about: maskne—acne caused by wearing face masks. Masks are not only good for protecting against droplet spread, they also seal in moisture, creating an ideal environment for bacteria that cause acne. In a letter published last March in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, approximately 83 percent of healthcare workers in Hubei, China, reported experiencing skin problems from frequent mask-wearing. Maskne complaints have become so prevalent during the pandemic that the academy has responded with guidelines for reducing mask-related breakouts. (Recommendations include washing masks after each use and cutting back on using things like aftershave.)
Winter adds an extra layer of complication to fighting maskne. Many acne treatments can make dry skin worse—and using winter-grade moisturizers to combat dryness can lead to more breakouts. So, what are you supposed to do?
BU Today consulted Christina Lam, a School of Medicine assistant professor of dermatology and a clinical dermatologist at Boston Medical Center, BU’s teaching hospital. “We’ve been seeing a lot of acne lately,” she says. Lam offers some tips for treating maskne and dryness at the same time, without irritating your skin.
Keeping your skin hydrated is crucial, no matter what condition it’s in. Under-moisturizing can cause your glands to overproduce oil, leading to worse breakouts down the road. This winter, it’s important to pick your moisturizer wisely.
“Thick, cream-based products can be helpful for dry skin, but they do tend to occlude pores,” Lam says. “And when you stick a mask on top—that you’re breathing and speaking into and trapping humidity under—you’re exacerbating the occlusion.” In lieu of heavy products, opt for something oil-free that “allows your skin to breathe a little,” she advises. Noncomedogenic gel–based and lotion-type formulas are your best bet.
Ingredients to look for: ceramides, hyaluronic acid
Exfoliating is an important step in getting rid of dead, flaky skin and unclogging your pores. But scrubbing can do more harm than good. “That can be quite irritating to skin,” Lam says. The same goes for chemical peels and exfoliants like glycolic acid—use them too much and you’ll end up with drier skin than when you started. Not to mention that exfoliants can aggravate active breakouts, making zits look more inflamed than usual.
The safest way to exfoliate this season is by using a face wash with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid in it, Lam says. “That will unclog pores more gently than scrubbing your face with a [motorized face] brush or using a product that makes your skin peel.” Also okay: acne-treatment products with azelaic acid or tretinoin (prescription-grade retinol) in them—if you’re already using them, that’s all the exfoliation you need.
Ingredients to look for: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid, retinol
Simplify your regimen
Now is the time to take away products, not add more to your medicine cabinet. “In general, dermatologists say that it’s better to have fewer things in a regimen just because your skin can get very aggravated by a lot of products out there,” Lam says. For this masked winter, all you really need is a gentle face wash, a moisturizer, and a noncomedogenic sunscreen during the day. You can use non-retinoid acne products in the daytime, she says, but it’s better to apply them as a spot treatment rather than all over.
Retinoids increase your skin’s sun sensitivity, so save them for nighttime. As with any acne-fighting product, apply moisturizer after the product if your skin is feeling dry. Just wait 5 to 10 minutes between applying products to let them become absorbed. “Otherwise,” Lam says, “you’re mixing multiple agents and just smearing things over the skin.”
When it comes to makeup this winter, she advises saving it for the eyes and up. “It’s not worth it to put heavy makeup on the lower half of your face. It’ll just sit on your face, doubly occluding your pores under a mask.”
If you want to treat yourself once in a while, hydrating sheet masks are perfectly fine, Lam says. Just stay away from anything with fragrance, preservatives, or essential oils in it, as all can bother already-broken-out skin.
Ingredients to look for: SPF 30 or higher