What's Behind Your Pandemic Pimples?
We don’t need to tell you that it’s been a tough year. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life in every possible way. For many of us, it’s even disrupted our complexions. A recent survey from the research firm Dynata has shown that acne is on the rise this year with 25% percent of 1,000 women surveyed reporting more breakouts. And that number seems to be even higher for the under 25 crowd; a whopping 55% of them are getting pimples during the pandemic.  With 50 million people already experiencing acne, that’s a whole lot of breakouts.
What gives? Yes, all that very necessary mask-wearing may play a role in increased rates of acne (the term ‘maskne’ was coined because of this phenomenon). But that’s not all: Changes in diet, behavior, stress levels, and sleep may all be contributing to your recent bout of breakouts, says Linda Stein Gold, M.D., a dermatologist in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and an Acne Store advisory board member. Here, Stein Gold pinpoints the pandemic pitfalls for your skin—and what you can do to keep calm and clear.
Can face masks cause acne?
Yes, ‘maskne’ is a real thing; you’re not imagining things: Maskne, the catchy name for breakouts caused by your mask, is a legitimate phenomenon. Even Stein Gold has experienced it during the pandemic. “At one point I was deployed from my regular dermatology office to the emergency room, and I was wearing an N-95 mask, a surgical mask, and a shield,” she says. “I developed a huge cyst—I haven’t had cystic acne since I was a teenager!” That mask (or in this case, masks) makes things hot and sweaty and acts like an occlusive, trapping oil, dirt, and bacteria in your skin—a perfect recipe for a pimple.
So, can you wear your mask without breaking out? Yes, with a few tweaks. First, apply your acne meds on clean skin before applying your mask. Skip the makeup. No one will see that part of your face anyway. Then pack extras. “A lot of my patients, especially teenagers, wear the same mask all day,” says Stein Gold. Once it starts to get sweaty, toss it and put on a clean one, she says.
Your quarantine diet may also be to blame for your breakouts
The stress or boredom of the last year may have sent you straight to the pantry. “People are sitting home and may be snacking more,” says Stein Gold. Maybe you’ve gained the “quarantine 15” or your diet is not as healthy as it could be. That can show up on your skin. “We know there is an association between diet and acne,” says Stein Gold. A lot of sugary snack foods are high glycemic index foods, which means they raise your blood glucose levels and subsequently your insulin levels. “That can spur a breakout,” she says.
The solution is to reach for things that won’t cause that spike in blood sugar: choose fruits and veggies and whole grains over processed, sugary foods. “Just because you’re at home in your pajamas in front of the computer doesn’t mean you have to let go of your diet and exercise regimen,” says Stein Gold.
"Changes in diet, behavior, stress levels, and sleep may all be contributing to your recent bout of breakouts."
Working too much can exacerbate acne
While working remotely, that whole work-life-balance thing went out the window for many. The couch became an office with no discernible office hours. Or maybe because you don’t have to get out the door for your early morning commute, you’re staying up late, binge-watching the latest Netflix series.
What does that have to do with your skin? When you’re off your regular routine, it’s easy to fall off your skincare routine, too. Maybe you’ve been skimping on your evening anti-acne medications simply because you no longer have a regular bedtime. “It’s really important to stick to a good routine,” says Stein Gold. In the morning, wash your face and apply your treatment products and do your evening routine before bed, she says. “When it comes to acne, consistency is half the battle,” she says. “If you’re only sticking to your routine once or twice a week, it’s going to take you much longer to see results.”
Stress is an acne-causing culprit too
First, let’s get this out of the way: Stress was inevitable during this past year. There were (and still are) a ton of factors that were out of our control. And we know stress plays out on your skin. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why. It may be because cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone” can trigger inflammation, and acne is an inflammatory condition. It may also be that stress stimulates the adrenal glands, which causes your sebaceous glands to pump out more pore-clogging sebum.
Whatever the reason, treating breakouts with acne medications will help, but to keep skin clear, it’s important to manage your stress levels, too. “A healthy lifestyle is always a good plan,” says Stein Gold. “A good diet and exercise certainly relieve stress for a lot of people.” Managing stress through mindful activities such as yoga and meditation can help, too, as well as talking to a counselor. “Anything you can do to improve your overall health will improve your skin, too,” she says.
Linda Stein Gold, M.D.
Dr. Linda Stein Gold, Chair of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists, is the Director of Dermatology Clinical Research and Division Head of Dermatology at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She received her medical degree from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, completed an internship in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
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