Making a coronavirus face mask: Dermatologist offers advice on best materials, how to soothe irritated skin

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Americans in areas where the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has hit hardest may soon receive updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to wear a face-covering or homemade mask when out in public. But when making a do-it-yourself mask, what materials should you use if you have sensitive skin? What should you do if your skin becomes irritated from long-term use?

Fox News asked Dr. Erum Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of the protective clothing line AmberNoon, for the best guidelines when it comes to making a homemade mask. Read on for a look at what she had to say below.

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Fox News: What are the best materials to use for a homemade face mask?

Dr. Ilyas: The talk of DIY face masks is focused currently on blocking viral spread. Traditionally, in the medical setting facial masks are usually used to block the spread of bacteria. Viruses measure less than one micron in size and can escape most fabrics. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria. Various household materials have been studied to determine their ability to block viruses and bacteria.

Choosing the right material first can determine your best chances of blocking viruses as well as ensure comfort to make you more likely to keep the mask on! A study looking at various household fabrics to block the spread of influenza years ago showed that cotton and polyester blends tend to be the most effective out of household materials while still maintaining breathability.

This type of textile can be found in most T-shirts or pillowcases around the house. In spite of rating the best in terms of blocking viruses and still maintaining comfort, these materials still only block about 70 percent of viruses. This makes them ideally suited for community and low-risk settings while still maintaining social distancing. It’s an added level of security to minimize the risk of viral spread.

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Fox News: How could a face mask irritate your skin and what should you do about it if it does?

Ilyas: In the past 15 years of practice I only had to wear a face mask for surgical excisions of skin cancers or procedures that risked splash to the face. Over the course of a day, I would use a mask on and off maybe 10 to15 times. I never felt that they irritated or bothered my skin.

Now, after spending the last three weeks in continuous use of a face mask 6 to 10 hours a day, my skin is feeling the effects. It’s multi-fold. There is friction of the mask over the nose where the clip lies. The pressure of the mask as it grips the cheeks, under-eye area, and chin to achieve a good fit to minimize the risk of exposure to virus around the edges of the mask. The humidity of our breath inside the mask can also lead to some chafing of the skin around the mouth as well.

To help offset these effects it’s a good idea to be proactive and use a good moisturizer every night to help restore and repair the skin. Try to choose a gentle cleanser when washing the face to avoid further irritation of the skin. If you are struggling with acne, it may be worth backing off of some of our traditional acne treatments such as ones containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids. These products work by drying or exfoliating the skin. This effect can be aggravated by the routine use of face masks. Consider talking to your dermatologist (via telehealth of course) about options to treat and control acne through less irritating means such as oral antibiotics or topicals containing azelaic acid.

I have seen a lot of rosacea flares with mask use lately which can be another reason to think about re-evaluating your skin routine.

Fox News: Can those with sensitive skin still wear masks?

Ilyas: People with sensitive skin can definitely still wear face masks. If they feel that their skin is irritated it can help to use moisturizers that rehydrate the skin and also serve as a barrier for the skin to protect it. Products that contain ceramides, squalene, niacinamide, and/or hyaluronic acid can help.

Fox News: What are some tips to soothe irritated skin?

Ilyas: Before bedtime, take the effort to apply a facial moisturizer to help restore and protect the skin. Hold off on some anti-aging products for now as they may irritate the skin. Focus on the hydration of the skin.

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 Fox News: What are the pros and cons of wearing a mask at this time?

Ilyas: There are a lot of mixed messages out there about whether wearing a mask can help at this time. I believe it is beneficial for the simple fact that wearing a mask is a two-way street -- they protect you from others and others from you. At this time of uncertainty, it’s likely simpler to assume all are positive for the coronavirus and take measures to protect ourselves and others through simple methods. Wearing a face mask is by no means 100 percent effective, but it’s pretty close to 70 percent for certain household materials.

The con of wearing a face mask is a false sense of security that we could feel “invincible” by wearing one. Face masks are not a permission slip to go back to a normal routine. Social distancing is still important to maintain with homemade face masks. They are an added level of security, but far from perfect.