As masks transition from medical requirements to essential clothing, some points to keep in mind
First things first—in Covid times, there’s no escape from wearing a mask. The pandemic has shifted the focus firmly toward protection; fashion designers have started making face coverings with a fashionable spin, start-ups have realigned their businesses to produce masks and other safety equipment, and do-it-yourself (DIY) tutorials on how to make masks at home on YouTube and Instagram are aplenty. Still, though the mask fashion has caught on, there remain unanswered questions. Which mask is the best? Are made-at-home fabric masks good enough? When does one need an N95? And what about skin irritation and allergies?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that masks could provide a barrier for potentially infectious droplets that lead to spread of the coronavirus. Governments across the world have made the wearing of face masks compulsory in public, as it helps to prevent the transmission of the virus. There are innumerable options available in the market, including surgical masks, those made of cotton, N95 and even KN95 and self-sanitising masks made with special silver pro technology that kills bacteria and viruses on contact.
Before buying a mask, it’s important to know its bacterial and viral filtration efficiency. Saumya Lohia Agarwal, head of strategy, Lohia Health, explains, “A material like linen is a highly breathable fabric. So, a material like cotton is a safer bet for masks—it has an air bacterial filtration efficiency 30 per cent higher than linen. Cotton is also softer than linen, much more comfortable on the face.” Another factor is the number of layers—or ply—in a mask. A 2-ply mask has higher breathability, but experts recommend sticking to a 3-ply cotton mask with a melt-blown layer for added protection.
However, wearing a mask for extended periods disturbs the skin’s natural oil and pH balance. A sort of ‘micro environment’ is formed between the mask and the face, trapping the breath and sweat and creating humidity, friction and heat. Masks also prevent the skin from breathing, and these conditions can lead to allergies, irritation, dermatitis, long-term dryness and folliculitis. “These problems can be easily avoided if you don’t get lured by fancy masks,” says Dr Rinky Kapoor, a cosmetic dermatologist and demato-surgeon at the The Esthetic Clinics. “Check the dye and fabric and prioritise quality. Choose masks made of soft and breathable fabrics and stay away from synthetics.”
Those with sensitive skin are prone to eruptions and rashes, especially if they use masks made of polyester, sponge or rayon. These non-natural materials retain moisture as well as oil when used for longer durations, and increase the chances of rosacea and pimples. According to Dr Mohan Thomas, senior cosmetic surgeon at the Cosmetic Surgery Institute, “The best way to address these concerns is to use a mask made of natural materials such as very fine woven cotton, composed of many layers. Also, wash these masks using scent-free non-allergenic soaps.”
Flare ups of acne, inflammation, eczema and redness are common with sensitive skin. Experts suggest applying a good hypoallergenic moisturiser before wearing a mask. Adds Dr Kapoor, “Make sure that the mask is not wet or used. If you are not a healthcare professional, there is no need to wear masks for extended periods. As soon as you remove the mask, wash your face with a gentle cleanser, pat dry and apply a moisturiser. Most important is to not share your mask with anyone and to always disinfect or wash it after wearing it.”
A primary reason for the increase in skin irritation and redness is because masks trap dirt, moisture and bacteria. “Contact dermatitis caused by the material of the mask is common, as is irritant dermatitis on pressure points like the nose and ear. In fact, the nasal bridge, where the mask rests, is the most common area of irritation,” says Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta, founder and medical director, ISSAC Luxe. The elastic of the mask behind the ears can also cause irritation. “Apply a barrier cream—vaseline or silicone-based creams work—before wearing a mask.”
Dr Amit Luthra, consultant dermatologist at Ishira Skin Clinic, adds, “People with acne would need to clean their faces with cleansers after wearing a mask to get rid of excess sebum. Using a good barrier or repair cream with hyaluronic acid should help. Since the use of masks can’t be curtailed, the best way forward would be to moisturise the skin, pre- and post-use.”
A way to avoid irritation on the nose and behind the ears is to use face shields in place of face masks. Dr Thomas says, “As reported in the April 29 journal of the American Medical Association, experts have suggested that face shields are better as they have a number of advantages over masks. First of all, they are endlessly reusable and require simple cleaning with soap and water or common disinfectants. Shields are usually more comfortable to wear than masks, and they form a barrier that keeps people from easily touching their own faces. Since they do not rest on the nose or the ears, there are no chances of irritation. However, a healthcare worker will still need a mask along with the face shield.”
Wearing a mask is new habit for everyone. One common mistake we make is to frequently adjust our masks for breathability. “One should not touch a mask when wearing it,” says Agarwal. “It transmits germs and virus from the hand to the surface of the mask and then back to the hand when it is touched again.” And a final takeway tip: when you get home and remove your mask, sanitise both the mask and your hand—and then send the mask off for a wash.