Perioral dermatitis, a complex facial rash that is often mistaken for acne, is becoming more common, some experts say. Here’s how to spot, treat and prevent this irritating condition.
By Elizabeth Svoboda
It started as a mini constellation of red dots near the right corner of my lips. Probably just “maskne,” I figured. I slathered on some acne cream and tried to forget about it.
But the inflamed, rashy spots didn’t fade away. In fact, they grew larger, spawning dandruff-like scales and flakes. Within days, the red dots had spread to the left side of my mouth, and even — to my horror — sprinkled across my eyelids. When I opened my mouth, I felt the raw, burning skin at the corners crack.
After a telemedicine visit with my dermatologist, I learned that I had perioral dermatitis — a noncontagious facial rash that often shows up as clusters of tiny, scaly, red, uncomfortable bumps above irritated skin. “We see it mainly around the mouth,” said Dr. Anna Chien, a dermatologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Some people can have similar breakouts around the eyes.”
Cases have become more common since the coronavirus outbreak began, some experts say. In one Canadian survey of 77 dermatologists published in September, more than a third reported either a large or slight increase in perioral dermatitis instances since the beginning of the pandemic.
“In our clinic,” Dr. Chien said, “we are seeing many more perioral dermatitis and other rashes related to masks.” Dr. Jessica Sprague, a dermatologist at the U.C. San Diego School of Medicine, noted a similar phenomenon. “Masks alter the skin environment, and they can also cause a lot of skin irritation,” she said, adding, “I’m definitely seeing it more now in the setting of mask wearing.”
What causes it
Perioral dermatitis might look a lot like acne, but the resemblance is deceptive, said Dr. Carrie Kovarik, a dermatologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology’s Covid-19 task force. “People confuse it with ‘maskne,’ and they are two different things.”
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