Face coverings are currently mandatory on public transport and in retail shops, across England (and most of the globe), meaning on a regular basis most of us are sporting face coverings. If, like us, you’ve encountered clammy skin, spots or rashes then you might be asking; can these masks also cause a breakout of cold sores for people who have never had one before? And what about people who already have the herpes simplex virus? So, whether you’re making your own mask, or buying the top of the range PPE equipment, you are soon likely to find that, as well as keeping you safe and sound, face coverings can also create some pretty annoying problems and side effects for your skin. But what’s fact and fiction?

Here, Qualified Heath Practitioner Tammy Richards at dispensary brand PureOptical runs us through some advice on how to avoid the unwanted side effects of wearing masks, and whether they do lead to cold sores.

‘Over the lockdown period, Dermatologists have reported a higher number of acne breakouts and skin conditions (although, of course, masks aren’t the only reason – everyone is understandably stressed which is a factor that increases the body’s production of cortisol, which increases the production of oil in the skin), and although most of us are nowhere near the levels of discomfort that frontline workers are going though, for some, wearing a mask can result in breakout of pre-existing skin conditions. People with skin conditions are told at a very young age not to aggravate the areas, but when wearing a mask that can almost feel impossible. So, if you are suffering with the ‘new normal’ then there are some methods to make your life a little bit easier’.

What is a cold sore, and can they be ‘caused’ by masks?

‘First things first – a bit of myth busting about cold sores. Only those who have the herpes simplex virus will get cold sores. So, to all those people on Twitter and Facebook claiming to have developed cold sores for the first time in their life due to wearing a mask for 10 minutes while shopping – sorry, but I highly doubt it. Herpes infections ARE highly contagious, and once you have the virus it stays in your affected cells for the rest of your life, sometimes causing cold sores, but the majority of the time it remains dormant. According to the WHO, as of 2016 an estimated 3.7 billion people under 50, or 67% of the population had this infection.’ So, can wearing masks bring out cold sores? ‘There’s no direct correlation between wearing a mask, and getting a core sore e.g. if everyone that is susceptible to core sores puts on a mask, then no, 100% of them won’t develop a core sore, BUT wearing a mask does create the ideal environment for the virus to grow. The temperature behind the mask, brought on by your breath and the weather, will generate heat and sweat, which leads to flare ups of temperature-related skin conditions, and because the mask is a confined space, added to the heat it creates a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. So, if you are prone to cold sores, all these factors (along with irritations from the fabric) can trigger a cold sore.  However, as it does not directly create them, there are measures that we can put in place to safeguard ourselves from a cold sore attack.

Self-care and the best ways of looking after your skin

Knowing that masks can cause irritations, what preventions can we take to protect our skin, especially if we’re having to wear them for long periods at a time? ‘The right mask can make a massive difference to the impact it has on your skin, and you should try to focus on the fit, the fabric, and how well you can breathe through it. You want a mask that protects of course, but what is the use of a mask if you are fiddling around with it every 5 minutes due to irritation? You want it to be breathable, but not so thin that it provides no filter. A tight 100% cotton weave works well for you skin and provides a good amount of security. There’s also the option of you making a mask that is bespoke to all your skin needs. Test what feels comfortable, and trial and error fabrics and materials that work best for you.  A breathable fabric will reduce the chances of the skin becoming warm, sweaty, and ultimately, the perfect breeding ground for a cold sore.

 Cold sores are very contagious.  If a person suffers from one cold sore, then this can spark several to appear over the surface of the skin over a period.  This is often due to a person touching the area with their hand or perhaps a towel and then spreading the virus.  I have noticed many people not picking up on this fact and regularly washing their mask. Regularly washing your mask will get rid of sweat and the build-up of bacteria, as well as fight the materials natural urge to absorb your face’s oils, which in turn will cause irritations and break outs (though use non-detergent to reduce the risk of contact irritation).  Ideally, face coverings should be washed after 4 hours of wear or every use – which ever instance comes first.  They should be kept in their own bag away from your other possessions’

‘To help reduce the effects of face masks, you could also start using ointments to protect the parts of your skin which are prone to negative reactions. Wearing a daily barrier protection will do wonders over time for your skin, reducing the chaffing of the materials, and stopping yourself from constantly moving you mask for a more comfortable position. If you are vulnerable to cold sores, I would suggest wearing lip balm under the mask to protect against the humid heat and dryness. Combine this with reducing the amount of make-up you use or switching to a foundation that contains good skin bacteria ingredients to help reduce the build-up of bad bacteria.

Overall, I believe that what we’re trying to maintain is cleanliness of the mask, and people seem to be forgetting that it’s a piece of material just like any other piece of clothing. You wouldn’t wear a t-shirt 5 days in a row without washing it, so apply the same reasoning to your mask’.