ask the strategist

‘I’m an ER Doctor. How Can I Keep My N95 Mask From Irritating My Skin?’

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In our advice column, Ask the Strategist, we take your most burning shopping questions and survey friends, call up experts, and draw on our own personal experience to answer them. As always, please comment with any questions of your own — we’re here to help.

I’m an ER doctor working at Elmhurst Hospital. Every day, I wear an N95 mask and a plastic face shield to protect myself and others, and it’s absolutely wrecking my skin. The masks are incredibly itchy. Can you help me and all the other health-care workers in the same situation right now figure out a skin-care routine that could make this less uncomfortable?

First, we want to thank you for being on the front lines during this pandemic. And second, we have some suggestions! While it may not be possible to actually make wearing the mask any more comfortable, there are some steps you can take to ensure it creates less irritation on your skin — and to address any irritation that does occur. Through talking to our trusted experts, we learned that by using an occlusive treatment (like Aquaphor’s Healing Ointment, for instance) before you put on your equipment, you can create a thin (nondisruptive) protective barrier between the mask and your skin, which will make the fabric less irritating. At home, it will be important to ensure that any products that touch your face during this time are calming and healing (this means no products with fragrance and no exfoliants). We’ve created a list of such calming, healing, and moisturizing products (all of which we’ve sent to you) below — we hope they will make a big difference in terms of how your skin feels and looks in the coming weeks and months.

[Editor’s note: For anyone looking for ways to support health professionals during the coronavirus pandemic, our friends at the Cut put together a guide to how to donate supplies and money, from peer-to-peer platforms that link health-care workers with individuals willing to donate to GoFundMe campaigns crowdsourcing money for specific institutions.]


This extremely gentle and hydrating cleanser from Dr. Loretta was formulated specifically with “post-procedure skin” in mind — which essentially means that it’s perfect for use on extremely sensitive, inflamed, or dehydrated skin. Use this in the evening to gently rid your skin of any residual dirt or sweat — it includes ingredients like chamomile and marine peptides which soothe and nourish the skin.

A more wallet-friendly alternative is this extremely gentle, neutral cleanser from Cetaphil. It’s milky, mild, and unscented, so it’ll remove dirt without further irritating your skin.


Hydrocortisone is a topical steroid that helps treat swelling, itching, inflammation, and redness caused by a variety of skin issues (it’s most commonly used as a treatment for eczema, psoriasis, or allergic reactions). While prescription hydrocortisones are stronger (meaning you will see results quicker), there are a number of over-the-counter cortisone creams that can provide healing and calming results for the skin, like this one, which uses 1 percent hydrocortisone, as well as aloe vera, to relieve discomfort, itchiness, inflammation, or redness. Apply a thin layer on the affected area daily for a week (or longer, depending on the severity). This can be applied on clean skin in the mornings and evenings — before and after wearing your mask.


In order to keep your skin moisturized and soothed, you’ll need to layer a moisturizer on top of the hydrocortisone (wait as long as you can after applying the hydrocortisone to apply the moisturizer, to allow it to sink in properly). Aesthetician Sofie Pavitt recommends this moisturizer from First Aid Beauty, which is composed of soothing and calming ingredients like oatmeal and allantoin. She said that layering this cream on top of the hydrocortisone is an excellent way to tackle extremely burnt or irritated skin.


If $30 is too steep, here is an excellent, affordable drugstore alternative. It contains ceramides, which help reinforce the skin’s barrier (a perfect ingredient for someone dealing with fragile, irritated skin). It’s really rich, without being greasy, and sinks in easily. Apply this everywhere (just a little bit goes a long way) after cleansing and treating the skin, and just before putting an occlusive layer — your next and final step — on top.


Aquaphor’s Healing Ointment is an excellent product to apply as the final step of your morning and evening routines — it’ll lock in all those healing ingredients you just applied. Dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo also recommends applying a very thin layer of Aquaphor Healing Ointment all over your face right before you put on the mask. It will create a protective veil between the skin and fabric of the face mask, she says. You can also apply a thicker layer of Aquaphor Healing Ointment just before bedtime for some additional moisturizing treatment.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

‘I’m an ER Doctor and My Mask Is Badly Irritating My Skin.’