The Caring Support Blog

How to Protect Your Skin from the Effects of Prolonged PPE Use

February 11, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the need for everybody around the world to use some kind of PPE to protect their airways from the virus and control the spread of the disease.

Most people simply use a face mask when they leave their houses to run any necessary errands and take it off as soon as they return; but that is not the case for healthcare workers (HCW) who need to use more than one type of equipment, and then leave it on for the entire duration of their shifts, which by the way, are getting longer than ever.

As a result, healthcare workers are now not only dealing with massive amounts of work, stress, and fear but also with skin damage caused by prolonged PPE use. The effects of these types of equipment on the skin are recently being studied by dermatologists, but in the meantime, there are several changes that healthcare workers can make in the way they use them to avoid those dreaded red bruises on their faces at the end of a long shift and protect their skin.

In this article, Caring Support will share with you everything you need to know about PPE and will provide you with recommendations about how to protect your skin from the effects of prolonged PPE use. Read on.

What Is Personal Protective Equipment(PPE)?

PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment and it refers to any type of equipment intended to protect its wearer from contaminants that can be biological (bacteria, germs, viruses) or chemical (liquids or gases that can be harmful to the airways or the skin). 

Examples of PPE include face masks, goggles, face shields, gloves, and gowns that are usually designed as disposable items intended to be used for no more than four hours and never to attend to multiple patients without a replacement. However, because of the shortages of PPE early in the pandemic, healthcare workers had to wear the same equipment for entire shifts, and that was when skin damage cases began to arise. 

Read More: Ways to Prevent Mask Skin Problems

Personal Protective Equipment

Why Should Use PPE in Healthcare?

You might be asking yourself what is the purpose of personal protective equipment, and that's a fair question, considering how some forms of PPE are uncomfortable to use and may harm your skin. You should know that the purpose of using PPE is helping to prevent the spread of germs in healthcare settings like hospitals and long-term care facilities. This equipment is designed to protect healthcare workers and by extension their relatives, from infections caused by contact with blood, other bodily fluids, or airborne contaminants. For this reason, almost all patient-facing healthcare workers should use PPE at all times during their work shifts.

What Are The Top 5 Personal Protective Equipment?

There are many types of PPE that are frequently used in healthcare. However, not all healthcare PPE are as popular as these:

  1. Gloves to protect the hands. Disposable medical gloves are usually made of latex or vinyl.
  2. Masks to protect the mouth and nose. Disposable masks usually have multiple layers to stop contaminants from getting in and are made of materials such as cotton, polypropylene, and polyester blend.
  3. Gowns to protect the skin and clothing. Disposable medical or surgical gowns are usually made of synthetic fabrics.
  4. Goggles protect the eyes, which are usually plastic.
  5. Face shields protect the entire face, which is made of plastic as well.

What Are The Types of Personal Protective Equipment?

Apart from the top 5 personal protective equipment used in healthcare, there are numerous types of PPE used in this field and in many others. For instance, construction workers are known for using PPE in their day-to-day activities. People in mining, the food service industry and hair salons also use these items. So, to understand the different types that exist, it is a good idea to classify them first.

For instance, personal protective equipment can be classified as simple and complex. Simple PPE refers to basic equipment that protects workers and regular people from low-risk hazards. This is the type of PPE that anyone can get in a store and use as they see fit. Complex PPE, on the other hand, is more technical in terms of design and provides protection against high-risk or potentially fatal hazards. This is the type of equipment used by workers who deal with chemicals, radiation, etc.

Personal protective equipment can also be classified depending on the part of the body they protect, like so:

  1. Full body protective equipment, including high visibility vests and other equipment to avoid falls, exposure to hazardous materials and other risks.
  2. Skin protective equipment, such as gowns, aprons, overalls, etc.
  3. Head protection equipment, like helmets and special caps.
  4. Eye protection equipment, including goggles and face shields.
  5. Hand and foot protection equipment, like gloves and boots.
  6. Respiratory protective equipment, such as masks and respirators.
  7. Ear protective equipment, including ear muffs and plugs.

What Are The Effects Of PPE On The Skin?

According to MedSpace, prolonged use of any type of PPE can be harmful to the skin causing effects like dermatitis, maceration, and erosion of the epidermis where the mask used to be, over the nasal bridge, or behind the ears, where mask elastics rests. Consequently, healthcare workers are put at greater risk of developing infections or even Medical Device-Related Pressure Injuries (MDRPI). 

It is the combination of moisture caused by sweat, increased temperature, pressure, and friction that causes these skin damages in the first place, and with time the harm can only worsen, going from a reddened indentation in the shape of a mask, to something worst like an actual bruise or wound. In the case of hands, however, there is another reason why skin can become irritated, and that is frequent washing and sanitizing. 

Whatever the cause, the concern is that once the skin starts to show damage signs, like blemishes, itchy rashes, abrasions, or wounds, the chances of pathogens penetrating it increases. This can be particularly worrisome for healthcare workers because hospitals and healthcare facilities, in general, are a well-known source of bacteria and viruses that can cause fungal infections and much more.

Related: Best Self-Care Recommendations for Nurses

How You Should Protect Your Skin From PPE?

First things first, healthcare workers should try to go back to the practice of replacing their PPE whenever possible or every four hours at the most, depending on equipment availability.

Second, between uses, healthcare workers should wash their faces and moisturize them, paying special attention to the areas where the equipment touches the skin with the most amount of pressure such as the nose, ears, and forehead, for workers that use face shields. According to MedSpace, moisturizers containing acrylate polymers or dimethicone are preferred because of their durability, as opposed to ointments containing zinc or petrolatum products like Vaseline, which are not recommended. 

Third, it is important to make sure the skin is completely dry before replacing any piece of PPE, and that includes waiting until moisturizers have been absorbed completely and the skin feels soft but not slippery. This is why most dermatology experts recommend that healthcare workers wash and moisturize their skin about one hour prior to starting their shifts. However, when it comes to replacing equipment mid-shift, at least a couple of minutes of rest so that the skin can breathe and dry, should be fine. 

The fourth recommendation is to apply an alcohol-free skin barrier or protectant to the skin. These products, also known as liquid skin sealants, should be applied to the areas that are most likely to come in contact with PPE and get bruised. 


It should be noted that healthcare workers and every person who has to wear PPE regularly and for long periods, should not limit their skincare efforts to these particular moments, and should instead find a skincare routine that is simple to follow and easy to remember.

Caring for their skin on a daily basis, including using SPF to protect it from the sun, will help their skin be better prepared for prolonged PPE use. Added to this, maintaining good hydration and nutrition by drinking proper amounts of water and eating a balanced diet, respectively, will make all the difference.

If you are, or know someone who is, a PSW, DSW, RN, RPN, or a healthcare worker in any way, you can sign up to Caring Support to start developing your career with the numerous employment opportunities we have available. Create your free account today.

About The Author
Laura Woodman
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