A few months ago, images of healthcare workers’ face after a full day of work at the frontlines of the pandemic were seen everywhere, back when the virus was spreading rapidly in Europe and the United States. These photos showed doctors, nurses, and other types of healthcare providers with bruises, marks, and redness on their face that came from wearing the N95 respirators, face shields, surgical masks, and the rest of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for working safely.
Anyone who uses a type of face-covering, be it a reusable or a disposable face mask, is at risk of developing certain skin issues, that for the most part aren’t very serious. The term “mask” has been coined in the USA to refer to the acne that’s caused by the prolonged use of face masks. But, healthcare workers in particular, who spend 24 hours straight wearing tight-fitting N95 masks over 8 to 12 hour periods can have more serious and uncomfortable issues on their skin
This article will explain the main ways N95 masks can affect the skin of the wearer, and useful ways to prevent them from happening or to alleviate these effects.
The main skin problems that come from using N95 masks
N95 respirators need to be tightly fitted to the skin to work effectively in protecting the wearer. This prevents leakages of air, which makes sure that all the air inhaled by the wearer is being filtered by the mask, and they’re not breathing in any unfiltered air. For anyone who has ever had a hair tie too tightly on your wrist, or anyone who’s ever worn sweatpants with tight elastic bands around the waist, you’ll know that red mark and uncomfortable feeling. These face masks, when worn for long periods, will leave the same marks on the face skin.
This tight fit, mixed with the long hours of work, all the sweat from the layers of PPE that need to be stacked for protection, and the constant friction and pressure on the skin, you get the perfect combination of factors to result in skin irritation. This will then lead to bruising, discoloration, or breakdown of the skin, which is what we’ve seen in those heart-breaking photos of healthcare professionals that were popular at the beginning of the pandemic.
According to several dermatologists and experts, however, these issues won’t last long and don’t cause any long-term damage. The images are very shocking and gory, but we can feel relieved that these are not issues that will lead to permanent scarring or disfigurement. The inflammation and discoloration seen in them is limited to the most external and superficial layers of the skin, and this can be corrected easily.
A problem seen in the general public, not only in healthcare workers, by wearing other types of face-coverings like reusable cloth masks and surgical masks, is the so-called “maskne”. This is the development of acne and/or zits due to the prolonged use of face masks, in combination with humidity and irritation.
Tips from experts to soothe and prevent these problems:
Many healthcare providers, including doctors and nurses, have been looking for ways to treat and/or prevent these annoying and uncomfortable side effects from the prolonged use of respirators daily. We’ve collected the best ones we found here:
- Using ice: after long hospital shifts, icing their faces has been one of the most soothing things healthcare workers have been doing. Dermatology experts also say that these ice masks are effective to reduce inflammation.
- Cold Aquaphor or Vaseline: keeping these items in the fridge will keep them cold, and then applying them to the face after a long day at work can be very soothing and calming.
- Blister products: including hydro-seal blister bandaids or blister balms can also soothe the skin.
- Maintaining a good skin-care regimen: this includes cleansers that are gentle on the skin, balms, calming serums, and, of course, using sunscreen.
- For “maskne”: experts recommend products with azelaic acid, a natural treatment used to prevent dark marks or discoloration from acne. If the breakouts persist, consulting with a dermatologist is a good idea to evaluate other treatments, which may include antibiotics.
- What to avoid: peeling or exfoliating products, as they can exacerbate the inflammation and irritation, making it more noticeable.
The most important thing is to always be sure that your N95 respirator fits tightly to the skin, so all of these treatments are recommended for after the worker has stopped wearing the face mask. Applying any product to the skin before wearing the respirator will form a barrier between the mask and the skin, decreasing the effectiveness of the respirator.
Many of the effects we’ve discussed are very uncomfortable, but they’re not permanent, and being safe from the virus is the priority for workers in the healthcare field. We hope these tips can help you make the work you’re doing for your community more comfortable and bearable.
Why are N95 respirators so important?
They’re considered to be the best face mask for virus protection, with antiviral properties that are higher than those found in medical, surgical, or reusable cloth face masks. They can be worn with face shields, and some of the most popular models in the USA are the 3M N95 masks, including the 3M 8511 and the 3M 8210. Many people began to buy these masks in bulk and wholesale at the beginning of the year, but they quickly were difficult to find for sale in online stores.
Besides filtering out viruses like the flu or the new coronavirus, they’re effective for other particles like dust or smoke. Other respirators like the KN95 masks or the FFP2 respirators are considered to be their equivalent under standards from China and Europe respectively.
These respirators are reserved for medical uses, and the general public is urged to use other alternatives, including kids with masks in a smaller size.