How do isolation and prolonged lockdown affect our skin? Are mask-related breakouts actually a thing? And what can we do, alongside lotions and potions, to take care of our complexion at a time when stress is high and access to fresh air (and facials) is low.

For answers, we spoke to two people with very different approaches to skincare. James Vivian is one of the country’s most sought-after dermal therapists, dubbed “the face whisperer” by clientele in Melbourne and Sydney. Susie McIntosh owns the refined and meditative Comma Spaces spa, which has locations in Byron Bay and Melbourne and specialises in relaxation, massage and skin treatments.

How does isolation – and the broader lockdown restrictions – affect our skin?

James Vivian: During iso we’ve been speaking to clients who started or stepped up skincare only to find their skin has become red, inflamed, sore, dry, sensitised, rough and congested. This can be due to improper use of skincare for this time of year or improper use more generally.

But it’s not all bad news. With less travel and holidays, for example, and the sun exposure that can come with it, we’re seeing a natural resolution in pigmentation disorders, such as melasma. Clients are starting to get a sense of the connection between sun exposure and pigmentation issues, which will hopefully lead to more sunscreen and other sun protection habits.

Covid has also provided the time and inclination for many to begin or step up their skincare routines. It’s an opportunity to target skin concerns or simply appreciate how lovely your skin can look and feel when it receives some love. It’s also a chance to take a few moments of self-care and time for yourself.

Susie McIntosh: If you’ve been able to go out and move around freely, spending less time in dry, fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned offices [as well as laying] off the make-up and sunscreen, I’d say your skin is healthier than ever.

But if you didn’t or couldn’t open the window, ate a lot of takeaway or the tinned food you panic-shopped back in March, got no sun on your face for weeks, scrolled news apps 24/7 and started cocktail hour at midday – your skin will show it. Skin doesn’t do well in stagnant conditions. Movement and circulation helps it to purge toxins and regenerate.

What role does winter or cold weather play in all this?

Susie McIntosh: Winter brings dryness – wind, cold and indoor heaters all contribute to dry skin. It’s a good time to use oil and wax-based skincare on damp skin to lock in all the hydration you can. (Oil or wax-based skincare has an occlusive or sealing nature that helps prevent moisture loss.) And damp skin is more permeable and makes for a smoother application (which, for me, means I can use less product). Damp skin does not mean dripping wet, but still damp after patting down.

We use La Paar products in our facials as they’re oil-based.

James Vivian: During the cooler months, and especially during iso, we’re seeing a huge increase in skin irritation. Winter always sees an increase in skin irritation from the use of indoor heaters and fluctuations in temperature as we move from indoors to outdoors. These environments can make for very dehydrated and irritated complexions, which can be further exacerbated by the use of improper skincare.

What are your tips for taking care of your skin under these conditions and in winter generally?

James Vivian: During the cooler months we need to increase the skin’s natural production of oils to prevent dehydration and sensitivity. Or simply apply more moisturiser to act as a barrier between the skin and the environment around us.

Everyone has individual skin concerns and require an individual approach. For sensitive and irritated skin, we generally find that by simplifying your skincare routine – e.g. using a cleanser, moisturiser and SPF – and using super nourishing products with a low active-ingredient content, you’ll often see a resolution within a week or so.

The temptation with skincare is to think that more product is better. This is where we see a lot of problems regarding sensated and irritated skins. We always treat the sensitivity first before moving onto other concerns such as pigmentation, acne, age-management concerns etc.

Susie McIntosh: Get out and into the fresh air. Even if it’s only for limited amount of time, spend some moments in the sun on your walk. Drink lots of water. Maybe even use this time to give your skin a break from make-up; layers of primer, foundation, bronzer, powder and blush – on top of skincare products – mean less of an opportunity for your skin to regenerate and breathe, dermatologists say. It’s the perfect time to show some face.

Are mask-related breakouts a thing? Does it depend on the kind of mask you're wearing?

Susie McIntosh: The friction and materials used in a mask may cause accumulation of moisture and humidity resulting in skin dryness and sometimes peeling.

James Vivian: Balancing skincare, hormones, make-up and facials to keep our skin clear of blemishes can be hard enough. Add a mask in and it throws out the balance once again. We’ve seen an increase in breakouts due to stress, friction, allergic reactions, peri-oral dermatitis and improper skincare management. And for women, the mouth area is typically an area that can break out regardless of mask usage, so mask season may either be highlighting this or making it worse.

What can people do to prevent that from happening, or treating these breakouts when they do occur?

James Vivian: Be solutions-based. As with any skin changes, do your best to try make it better, but be aware of using too much product and making matters worse. Be fastidious about removing make-up and general cleansing with a suitable cleanser at the start and end of each day. Try and go make-up free or switch to a mineral make-up brand. Mineral make-up is designed to sit on the skin rather than being absorbed into the skin where it can irritate and cause breakouts, especially when used underneath a mask. Select a spot treatment to use on your blemishes as opposed to attacking the whole face. Remember, pimples come and go, but scars may last a lifetime.

Ensure your masks are being refreshed regularly and switch to another brand if you’re experiencing an allergic reaction.

Susie McIntosh: Before using your mask, skin should be clean and well-moisturised.

How could stress – something many people are experiencing right now – affect our skin?

Susie McIntosh: Stress, anxiety and fear: they show on our skin – typically in forehead breakouts and dull skin tone.

James Vivian: Peri-oral dermatitis is a stress-induced skin condition that most commonly affects women. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and generally present as a combination of redness and uneven skin texture localised to the mouth area.

There are some DIY therapies that can assist when peri-oral dermatitis sets in. For example, don’t use potentially irritating products (such as exfoliants, retinol, heavy make-up) and replace them with products aimed at soothing and hydrating the skin.

If you see improvements using the above advice alone, continue until the issue resolves and then gradually return to your pre-peri-oral dermatitis skincare routine. Keep an eye out for signs that it’s returning and continue to adjust your routine as needed. For more persistent peri-oral dermatitis symptoms, a trip to your dermatologist for some antibiotics may be needed to assist with the inflammation.

Besides lotions and potions, what else can we do to take care of our skin right now?

Susie McIntosh: Don’t stress! Do what you can to flatten the curve, but use this time to get around to all the things you never have time to do. Cook, read, potter, garden. Whenever you’re relaxed, your skin shows it.

And a spritz of pure hydrosol before applying your day oil or cream – it really works to keep my skin hydrated.