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In protecting against COVID-19, sometimes the skin suffers

Wearing masks and constant hand-washing are two good ways to protect yourself from COVID-19, but they could cause irritations, especially for people with sensitive skin. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

Dermatologists said they are seeing more skin irritations such as acne and dermatitis as people wear masks and other personal protective equipment for long periods of time — especially in the heat — during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, skin experts warn these problems are not an excuse to stop wearing personal protective coverings and diligently washing your hands. There are steps people can take to prevent skin breakouts, or "maskne," as referred to on social media, they said.

"Patients are coming in with a variety of rashes that they've never had before," said Dr. Stephen T. Greenberg, a cosmetic plastic surgeon whose practice in Woodbury and Southampton includes dermatology.

"Acne is much more prevalent after wearing masks for long periods of time," he said. "Pores get clogged and there is additional sweat on the face … so that's creating all sorts of acne flare-ups that we haven't seen before as well."

Arlene Ramirez, a registered nurse who is director of patient care services at the Long Island Jewish Valley Stream emergency department, has enhanced her daily face cleaning routine before and after work to prevent those problems.

“It gets really sweaty and oily under the mask no matter how cool the room is,” said Ramirez, who has been a nurse for 15 years. “As soon as I am able to, I wipe my face with a napkin or paper towel after washing my hands.”

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She said colleagues have dealt with acne around their chin and marks on their noses from masks.

But it's not only health care workers who are dealing with these skin issues. People must wear masks to enter almost every building except their own homes. And breakouts can happen even if someone is only wearing the mask for a short time.

"We are seeing more breakouts, acne and people with really dry hands — probably two to three times more than usual," said Dr. Raman Madan, director of cosmetic dermatology at Northwell Health and assistant clinical professor at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. "People bring it up when they come in for their annual skin checks or to get treated for another issue."

Madan said people should use cotton masks instead of those made with nylon, polyester and rayon, which can irritate skin.

Moisturizer is key, even though some people may worry it will make them sweat even more, he said.

“One of the best things you can do is wear a very light moisturizer — that can make a big difference,” Madan said. “Then, cleaning and exfoliating your skin every day is helpful because that will help get rid of the oil, the dead skin cells and anything else that could be irritating the skin.”

Greenberg said repeated hand-washing, along with using hand sanitizer with alcohol, is not the only reason more people are dealing with dry, cracked skin on their hands.

“They are using caustic chemicals for cleaning as well as whatever they are using on their hands,” he said. “We are advising people to use gloves as much as possible when cleaning.”

For people with even mild cases of eczema, excessive use of hand sanitizer, and even water, could lead to red, inflamed and itchy skin.

“Each time you wash your hands, you are stripping the skin of natural oils,” Madan said. “The key here is moisturizing as much as you can throughout the day.”

Madan also agrees that using soap and water is better than hand sanitizer, which dries out skin.

Extreme cases can be treated with prescription medication, but Madan suggested people take moisturizing seriously — three or four times a day.

“It does take a little bit of work,” he said. “There’s no easy way around it.”

Caring for your skin

Wearing masks and frequent hand-washing are key to preventing COVID-19, but can be harsh on your hands and face. Here are some tips from experts:

  • If possible, wash your hands with soap and water instead of hand sanitizer, which usually has alcohol and can dry out skin.
  • Wash and exfoliate the skin on your face well before and after wearing a mask. Use a light moisturizer on your face to help provide a barrier between your skin and the mask.
  • Wear gloves when using any kind of chemical cleaners.
  • Use moisturizer on your hands three or four times a day to prevent skin from getting irritated and cracking.

SOURCE: Newsday research

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