Preventing Pandemic-Related Skin Problems

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As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country, some of our daily routines started to change. Instead of washing our hands after a visit to the restroom or before preparing food, we were scrubbing them down in between almost every task. Face masks were recommended, then required in Virginia—and we all scrambled to either find a box of disposable ones or make our own cloth coverings.

We started protecting ourselves from germs—without possibly realizing the toll all of these precautions can take on the body’s largest organ: our skin. We asked Jason Givan, MD, a dermatologist at Ridgeview Dermatology, to address some of the most common pandemic-related skin complaints.

Face Mask Irritation
Wearing a mask across your face, either for a quick trip to the grocery store or even a full work day, can lead to different problems for different people. “Some people may experience extra dryness or irritation under a mask from friction,” says Dr. Givan. “Others who are more acne prone may find themselves with more breakouts than usual.”

To address dryness, Dr. Givan recommends moisturizing with a gentle emollient to soothe the skin. For acne breakouts, washing with an acne wash can help.

Healthcare workers are particularly prone to skin problems connected to face masks. A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found that more than one-third of healthcare workers complained of acne, facial itching and even dermatitis from wearing an N95 mask.

Dr. Givan added that healthcare or other frontline workers may even develop sores on their noses or behind their ears if their masks don’t fit properly. If these issues are a problem for any mask wearer, he suggests looking for a mask that ties behind the head instead of one that loops behind the ears.

In terms of the whether you should choose a cloth or disposable mask, Dr. Givan says how the mask fits is still the most important factor. Also keep in mind where you will be wearing your mask.

“A mask worn is a warm/hot and dusty environment will need to be cleaned more frequently than a mask worn in a cool and relatively clean environment,” he says.

Dryness from Frequent Handwashing
According to the NIH, two thirds of healthcare workers wash their hands more than 10 times a day. Due to the drying nature of hand soaps and hand sanitizers, repeatedly lathering up can lead to irritation. “Both can disrupt the skin barrier leading to dryness and in some cases inflammation with rash,” says Dr. Givan.

He recommends using a non-soap cleanser, such as Cetaphil or CeraVe, which can be gentler on the skin. Also, try alternating between washing your hands and using hand sanitizer. But most importantly, don’t forget to moisturize.

“Generally, thick moisturizing ointments or creams can be helpful in repairing the skin, especially when applied frequently and liberally,” he explains. “When significant inflammation or rash are present, patients may need to use topical steroid medication or see a dermatologist.”

Stress Breakouts or Flare Ups
When our bodies go into a state of panic, our skin usually lets the world know. “The mind and the body, especially the skin, are certainly tightly connected to one another and the interactions between them are incredibly complex,” Dr. Givan says. “Stress induces the body to release elevated amounts of cortisol and other hormones that can trigger downstream effects on the skin and other body systems.”

It’s not uncommon for common skin conditions— such as psoriasis, acne, and eczema—to worsen during times of stress, he says. The best advice for anyone experiencing a flare up is to stay in touch with your dermatologist to determine the right course of action. “There are many great treatment options available for skin condition flares,” says Dr. Givan. “I’d encourage someone in that situation to schedule an appointment so that we
can help.”

Dr. Givan also says while COVID-19 can cause some skin issues, such as toe inflammation or bumpy/blotchy rashes, these are still less common than other symptoms of the virus. So if you are experiencing skin-related issues, odds are you need to overhaul your hygiene habits and that should help reduce or eliminate any discomfort.

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