Over the past year, you’ve likely been one of the countless people who have noticed small blemishes or irritated skin around your mouth. Often, we’re quick to chalk it up to “maskne”—acne caused by frequently wearing a face mask—but that’s not necessarily the case.
Periorificial dermatitis, a cluster of small papules that can commonly occur in different areas on the face, is also on the rise. In fact, in a recent survey of 77 Canadian dermatologists, more than one-third of respondents noted an increase in cases of perioral dermatitis (the name used for flare ups around the mouth) since the start of the pandemic.
Here, Dr. Jonathan Levy, Refine by Medcan’s medical director, explains what you need to know about the condition.
Simply put, periorificial dermatitis is a rash, says Dr. Levy. The cluster of inflamed blemishes can look like small pimples sitting on top of red skin, usually concentrated around the mouth, nose or eyes. Periorificial dermatitis is not contagious and shouldn’t be painful—though patches can be slightly tender to the touch. Their appearance is why the breakouts are commonly mistaken for maskne, but there is a key difference: these rashes are often itchy. The good news, according to Dr. Levy, is that it’s not uncommon for someone to experience periorificial once and then never again. In all likelihood, it won’t be a recurring issue.
“Periorificial dermatitis is something we’ve always seen,” Dr. Levy explains, adding that an exact cause is hard to determine. “That said, it’s more commonly found in women compared to men.” The likely reason? Women tend to use more skincare products and makeup compared to men.
Cortisone (which is found in inhalers and nasal sprays) can also be a big trigger. This includes cortisone creams, which can actually cause flare-ups in periorificial dermatitis instead. Sometimes, the rash will clear up temporarily before returning with a vengeance. That’s when you’ll know you aren’t experiencing a typical breakout.
And it’s not a coincidence that dermatologists have been seeing more cases lately: Frequent mask use can also play a role. “Masks rub up against your face, create more humidity and, people often reuse their masks before washing them,” Dr. Levy explains. And wearing makeup under your mask can also contribute to the condition, even if those same skincare products never bothered you before.
“If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. If your skin has been fine, keep doing what you’re doing,” says Dr. Levy. In other words, you shouldn’t suddenly be concerned about taking extra steps to prevent periorificial dermatitis if you haven’t struggled with it before—especially since specific causes can be so hard to nail down.
But if you do notice a rash suddenly start to appear, there are a couple of steps you can take. First, wash your face mask after every use. Pare down your skincare routine. Wash your face using just water and a gentle cleanser and use a non-comedogenic moisturizer only if your skin tends to be on the dry side. Avoid all makeup. “You have to let the rash settle down, but it’s not forever,” Dr. Levy says. “Once your skin is back to normal, you can start slowly reintroducing products.” That said, you shouldn’t go back to using a new product that could have triggered the irritation.
More severe instances of periorificial dermatitis—meaning the rash is quite bad, doesn’t improve over time and after you’ve eliminated products from your routine or, for some reason, the rash does recur—would benefit from professional help. Dermatologists may prescribe a cream or gel to help treat the blemishes, or, in some cases, an oral antibiotic may be required.
And if the prescribed cream actually works? “Keep it in the cupboard,” says Dr. Levy. “You know it’s safe for you to use, and if the periorificial dermatitis comes back, you can start using it again and nip it in the bud before it gets too bad.”