Face masks are essential to protecting all of us against the spread of COVID-19. According to the Ohio Department of Health, when you wear a mask properly — over your nose and mouth — it blocks the respiratory droplets we all breathe out, which means there are fewer of those potentially virus-carrying droplets for us to breathe in. And while wearing a mask whenever you’re in a public space protects both you and others, it can also be hard on your face, causing skin problems like itchiness, dryness, rashes, and/or acne.

The good news is, there are ways to protect your skin while still protecting yourself and others. Here are five of them.

1) Wear the right mask.

You should always wear the best-fitting, most-protective mask you can. It needs to fit comfortably, obviously, so you'll wear it consistently. Here are three of the most common types of face masks and some recommendations about how best to wear and care for them:

  • Cloth Masks: Many people find cloth masks the most comfortable, but they’ve also been shown to be the least protective. If you choose to wear one, be sure to wash it after each use to remove the oils, dead skin, and other particles that can accumulate during the day. Both hand and machine washing are fine.
  • Disposable Surgical Masks: These masks are very popular and more effective than cloth masks. If possible, they should be replaced after each use. Also, try not to use the same one multiple times.
  • N95 Masks: These masks are the most fitted and most effective. Due to their tight fit, though, they’re more likely to cause pressure and/or irritate the skin. If you can, try and take a break from wearing them for a few minutes as long as you're in a safe, secure area and properly distanced from others. It will allow your skin to dry and breathe.

2) Cleanse and moisturize your face daily.

One of the most important things you can do to prevent breakouts and irritation is to stay on top of your skincare routine and keep your skin clean and well moisturized. Try these steps:

  • Before and after wearing your mask, use a cleanser to remove oil, dirt, makeup, bacteria, or other particles.
  • Apply a moisturizer to your skin. Be sure to choose the right one for your needs.
    • Oily skin (or when weather is hot, humid): Gel moisturizer
    • Normal or combination skin: Lotion
    • Dry to very dry skin: Cream
  • Address any skin problems you have or that might develop right away.
    • Eczema (Irritant Contact Dermatitis/Allergic Contact Dermatitis)
      • Wash your face and apply hydrocortisone ointment 1% to affected areas, followed by a barrier cream meant for chapped skin (e.g., Vaseline, Aquaphor).
      • If the mask material is the source of the reaction, put 1-2 layers of sterile gauze inside your mask to protect it. Change the gauze if it becomes damp or soiled.
      • Avoid breathing through your mouth when wearing a mask.
  • Acne
    • Wash or wipe sweat off your face as soon as you remove your mask.
    • Consider a face wash with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

3) Don't forget about your ears.

Most masks are of the "ear loop" variety, and wearing them for a long time can cause skin irritation behind the ears. If you’re experiencing this problem, consider a headband with buttons or an "ear saver" device to protect your ears while wearing a mask. After removing an ear loop mask, you should also clean and dry the external ear and apply a moisturizer.

4) Protect your lips.

In addition to your face, your lips can also be impacted by continuously wearing a mask. So you may need to double down on your lip-care routine. Make sure to exfoliate, apply lip balm, and incorporate an overnight lip treatment to boost the health and appearance of your lips.

5) Skip the makeup.

Wearing a mask while also wearing makeup means you’re more likely to get clogged pores, which can lead to breakouts. Reducing your use of makeup or avoiding it altogether when you know you’ll need to wear a mask may be the best solution. If you prefer or need to use makeup, be sure to use lighter products or those with anti-clogging qualities.

You may also want to reduce the use of other skin-care products if your face becomes irritated from constant mask use. Products that contain retinol or things like aftershave may work fine under normal circumstances but can cause irritation while wearing a mask.

Face masks will continue to be a valuable protective tool for as long as COVID-19 is with us. But that doesn’t mean your skin has to suffer. Try these tips for now, and if you find you need additional help, talk to your dermatologist. They’ll have even more solutions for protecting your skin while you’re protecting yourself and others from COVID-19.