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New Study Reveals Best Lubricants for Protecting Your Skin from Masks

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
PPE causes skin damage.

Discover why you should avoid creams and moisturizers advertised as “non-greasy feeling” when wearing face masks, and choose this special combo that actually decreases mask-related skin friction as the day progresses.


PPE for Extended Periods Causes Skin Problems

A news release from Imperial College London tells us that healthcare workers who have to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) for hours at a time are experiencing damage to their skin from the shear forces of masks and shields rubbing against their relatively delicate skin. This damage ranges from generalized redness of the skin to actual tears, blistering and hives.

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While most commercial moisturizers provide some initial relief, a closer study of their effectiveness when wearing PPE reveals that almost all of them wear off too quickly and wind up exacerbating skin irritation. Especially those that advertise as providing a “non-greasy feel.”

“We think of moisturizers as good for our skin, but commercial skin creams are often designed to absorb into the skin without leaving any residue. While this is fine for everyday moisturizing, our study shows that a greasy residue is precisely what’s needed to protect skin from PPE friction,” stated the lead author of the study, Dr. Marc Masen, who recently published his findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

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According to the study, using a custom-built tribometer to assess the friction between the materials used in PPE and the surface of a study participant’s forearm skin, the researchers were able to determine what works and doesn’t work as a protective lubricant when wearing PPE’s for extended periods.

The Best Lubricants for Skin Protection

What they found was that the best lubricants to use are those that don’t absorb into the skin; but rather, actually creates a long-lasting layer of protection between skin and PPE. The best lubricants they found were non-absorptive creams like coconut oil-cocoa butter beeswax mixtures, petroleum jelly, and powders like talcum powder.

What is interesting about the analysis is that while most commercial products initially reduced friction by 20 percent, some silicone-based and water-and-glycerin based lubricants actually wound up increasing the friction over time by up to 29 percent in comparison to non-treated dry skin.

However, two lubricants tested were found to cause a reduction in friction as time passed after its initial application:

• Talcum powder reduced friction by 49 per cent on application and 59 per cent at four hours.

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• A commercially available product comprising coconut oil, cocoa butter and beeswax reduced friction by 31 per cent on application and 53 per cent at four hours.

Furthermore, one lubricant that was a mixture of petrolatum and lanolin reduced friction by 30 per cent throughout testing.

Note that “petrolatum” is a term typically used synonymously with the more-familiar term “petroleum jelly” used in the U.S. Some health sites warn that “petrolatum” products carry the risk of being contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—especially those that are not fully refined. Some sources recommend avoiding all products with petrolatum, unless the company clearly indicates petrolatum is fully refined as white petrolatum on their labeling or on their company website.

According to the news release, the researchers believe that following their recommendations of lubricants will make life better for healthcare workers and that additional research is underway toward testing facial skin.

Dr Masen said: “Friction can be incredibly damaging for the skin, particularly when applied for an extended period. We hope our study will save healthcare workers and other frontline PPE wearers from suffering with the painful and damaging effects of skin friction.”

The researchers say that while their study signposts PPE wearers to the best skin-saving products, they are looking to perform further studies using facial skin and more participants. Due to COVID-19 restrictions during lockdown, they were only able to test the products on one study participant, and used his inner forearm as a surrogate for facial skin.

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash


"Talc and a wax-oil mixture among best lubricants for people wearing PPE" Imperial College London news release

Evaluating lubricant performance to reduce COVID-19 PPE-related skin injury” by Marc Masen et al, PLOS ONE published 24 September 2020.

PETROLATUM, PETROLEUM JELLY” article from Safe Cosmetics dot Org.