How Essential Health Care Workers Use Beauty as a Form of Self-Care

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

This story is part of our Self-Care Is Essential project exploring the simple power of caring for yourself.

Recently, ishonest spoke to dozens of frontline medical workers — from every state in America — about how the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged and changed them, and about its impact on their mental health. During these conversations, another topic came up again and again: how these women have reimagined their beauty and skin-care routines, both for practical reasons and personal ones. Yes, their morning skin-care rituals or evening showers soothe irritations and wash away germs, but they also offer rare moments of comfort, and calm, and control.

These women — from Hawaii to New York — have found a common enemy in COVID-19. But they’ve also found a common coping mechanism in their medicine cabinets and makeup bags. They have begun trading secrets about how to fight stubborn acne brought on by N-95 masks, their favorite hand creams to soothe cracked palms, how to manage hair dryness from over-washing, and the best waterproof mascaras that don’t sting your eyes.

“I don’t wear a ton of makeup, but I do love to wear a little foundation, blush, and lipstick. Now, I can’t wear any at work because of the N95 masks,” Sara, a nurse practitioner in Alaska, tells ishonest [we have agreed to use only first names, or pseudonyms when requested, in this story]. Those working on the front lines have been asked not to wear base makeup because “if there’s makeup on [a mask], it’s considered soiled or contaminated, and we can’t sterilize [it],” according to Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, who we talked to for a previous story. Cassandra M. Pierre, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, explained to ishonest that makeup worn under a mask may also damage the fabric, making it a less effective barrier.

Symptoms, treatment options, and personal experiences for various physical, mental, and health conditions and concerns.

One registered nurse told us that she’s switched up her manicure routine, since gels and acrylics have been forbidden at her hospital; she's now a convert to nail polish strips. Many of these frontline workers also talked about how eye makeup has taken on new importance as they face their patients in head-to-toe PPE [personal protective equipment]. “Since my eyes are the only thing people can really see, I like to fill in my brows with a natural-looking pencil and liner,” says Christine, a registered nurse in Delaware. And Megan, a registered nurse in Florida, always wears mascara and sometimes blends a bit of red lip liner pencil under her eyes to neutralize blue-ish circles: "When my patient makes eye contact with me, I want them to see comfort and compassion, not exhaustion and fear."

The medical masks are also creating a very visual bond between frontline workers: coordinated breakouts. “The masks we wear become humid and trap moisture, bacteria, and dirty air close to your skin. We all have matching rashes and pimples on our chins,” explains Kelli Hardin, a registered nurse in Georgia.

Practicing self-care while on the front lines of a pandemic isn’t easy, but that’s what makes it all the more important. Read how these 24 medical professionals have maintained and evolved their beauty rituals — and take notes (these women really know their stuff).

These quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Amy, physician, Maryland

Wearing an N95 for a nine-plus-hour shift is wreaking havoc on my skin and totally clogging my pores, so I’ve been super-vigilant about washing my face and exfoliating at the end of the day. I take my makeup off with a balm — I like the Farmacy Beauty Green Clean Makeup Meltaway Cleansing Balm — then use my Clarisonic before doing a gentle chemical exfoliation with something like the Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum. Once or twice a week, schedule permitting, I’ll try to do a mask. The Charlotte Tilbury Goddess Skin Clay Mask is my absolute fave. I could go on and on…. I’m totally a skin-care hobbyist!

The only thing I constantly tell myself is that I am lucky to have a job that I love. I think about everyone who isn’t getting a paycheck right now, and I just feel so fortunate.

Julia, nurse practitioner, Georgia

Wearing a mask all day makes my skin feel dry and dirty, so I've adopted a "less is more" skin-care routine with a focus on keeping my skin clean and moisturized. For years I've used Aveeno Ultra-Calming Foaming Cleanser. I then spray on Dermapeutics Hyaluronic Life Hydrating Facial Mist. I follow this up with Queen Helene 100% Cocoa Butter at night or a hyaluronic acid facial cream during the day.

For my hair, when I made the decision to work on the front lines, I knew my go- to protective style — braids — would be easy to manage and give my hair the protection it needs while working a demanding schedule. I maintain my style with Shea Moisture’s 100% Virgin Coconut Oil Leave-In Treatment, which I spray on my scalp and braids to keep my hair moisturized and shiny. I also always keep my hair pulled back and out of my face.

Simone, physician, New York

Before work I use Lume Deodorant — I swear by it. It was developed by an ob-gyn and it’s the best I’ve ever used.

I don’t cleanse in the morning so as not to disrupt my skin’s protective barrier too much, but I gently wash my face with lukewarm water, then apply a fragrance- free moisturizer, like The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA or Derma-E Sensitive Skin Moisturizing Cream. Then I apply a zinc oxide sunscreen — I love Supergoop’s Zincscreen, which has a tint to offset the white cast. It’s perfect for most skin tones. We use zinc oxide a lot in the hospital as a barrier cream, and I swear by it. It provides a protective barrier to my face, which will soon have a mask adhered to it for 13 hours.

For my post-work routine, I use Pond’s Fragrance-Free Cold Cream to dissolve that zinc oxide barrier. Then I double-cleanse with a gentle cleanser, like CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser. While my face is still damp, I apply fragrance-free moisturizer again.

For my hair, I love the HiBar plastic-free solid shampoo and conditioner bars, as well as Briogeo products. I love to use the Briogeo Farewell Frizz Smoothing Conditioner. I co-wash my hair after I’ve been working so I don’t dry it out too much.

Daniela, registered nurse, Indiana

Ever since this pandemic started, I haven’t been wearing much makeup due to the masks making my face too dry and breaking out. Olay has been a lifesaver for my face. I have been using the Sensitive Calming Liquid Cleanser, which is fragrance-free, the Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream Moisturizer, the Ultra Mist Ultimate Hydration Essence in Calming, and the Pore Detox Clay Stick.

Jennifer, registered nurse, Pennsylvania

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare products have kept my face hydrated and vibrant. Currently, I’m obsessed with the brand’s Hyaluronic Marine Dew It Right Eye Gel, which instantly cools my eyes and minimizes any puffiness or dark circles. I also use the All-in-One Cleanser With Toner to clean my face after a long shift. It’s gentle, light, and leaves my face feeling refreshed.

Meaghan, registered nurse, Arizona

I’ve been using the PCA Skin Intensive Clarity retinol treatment every night, and it’s been helping so much with stopping and clearing up any breakouts from wearing a mask. The Glossier Zit Stick is another great option for helping with the mask breakouts. I’ve also been trying out different eye creams in the morning because I feel like if I can’t wear any undereye makeup [because it damages N95 masks], I might as well put something helpful and moisturizing on. My favorite has been the Yves Saint Laurent Temps Majeur Yeux.

I’ve also changed my hair routine. My hair is not pleased with now having to be washed daily after work. I’ve been rotating between the Oribe Serene Scalp Shampoo and the Oribe Gold Lust Repair & Restore Shampoo, and my fave Fekkai Essential Shea Butter Conditioner and then Moroccanoil. To keep damage to a minimum, I now only blow-dry my roots and let the rest of my hair air-dry overnight while sleeping on my Slip Silk Pillowcase.

My final new self-care routine is for my hands. I’ve been using the Lollia Wish Dry Body Oil with the Lollia Wish Body Butter on top and then putting those aloe moisturizing gloves on to help hold in the moisture all night. It has been helping so much with the dry hands. I bring the Lollia Wish Hand Cream with me to use throughout the day at work.

Caitlin, registered nurse, Kansas

I have naturally wavy/curly hair that gets super dry. My go-to hair product has been Cantu’s Shea Butter Leave-in Conditioning Repair Cream. I follow it with a mixture of jojoba oil and rosehip oil.

I use the same oil mixture as a moisturizing serum for my face after I apply my face lotion. It really helps to hydrate and brighten my skin. You can get the oils from Amazon. They last forever. I’ve had my current set for a year now and they’re still going.

Jessica, registered nurse, Connecticut

My skin and hair have been more dry since my showering routine has changed. I use Living Proof anti-frizz in my hair along with L'Oréal Sleek & Swing Dual Stylers styling cream. For my face, I’ve been using Proactiv Emergency Blemish Relief, First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser, and Murad moisturizer.

Dorothy, registered nurse, California

When I have time off, I take the day to deep-clean the skin on my face and neck. My favorite masks are Ole Henriksen’s Cold Plunge Pore Mask and PHAT Glow Facial; they’re life-savers at declogging my pores and refreshing my skin. Along with the masks, I like to treat myself to a full spa day at least once during the week to help destress. I enjoy bath bombs from Lush and vanilla-scented candles from Bed Bath & Beyond. I let my hands soak up the moisture from the oils I use in my baths as well.

Shellie, physician assistant, Florida

With all of the stress, my skin has taken a beating. For extra cleansing, I love the MAC Mineralize Volcanic Ash Exfoliator. After being in masks and goggles all day, I like to keep my skin moisturized, and I love the Drunk Elephant Protini peptide moisturizer. Some days I don't feel feminine in my scrubs and PPE, so I put on various body butters to keep my skin supple. And I also use Vaseline with cocoa butter on my feet.

Pepper, registered nurse, Oregon

I pride myself on being tough, pushing through hunger or thirst to attend to the needs of others. So when I get home, I treat myself gently. I take Epsom salt baths with lavender and eucalyptus to calm my nerves and loosen my body. I cuddle with my kitty; I work on art; I soak up the peaceful solitude.

My skin has always been sensitive, and right now it is broken out where the PPE makes contact — my chin, cheeks, jawline. My nose is bright red and feels like someone punched it. I use a Neutrogena bar soap for acne-prone skin, and then La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo as a spot treatment. I’ve been using Aveeno Positively Radiant for moisturizing post-shift. It’s a struggle. It feels like every day when I put the mask on, I’m starting over and adding more blemishes to my face.

Jang Mi, physician assistant, Illinois

I live in Chicago but came to [New York City] to help. I’m actually a dermatology PA in Chicago. To ensure my skin doesn’t get damaged by all the donning and doffing of PPE, I start with a healthy skin barrier. The first thing I do when I get back to the hotel, besides strip down, is immediately wash my face with my gentle rose water cleansing bar. I follow with a cocktail of Neocutis Bio-Gel, Dr. C. Tuna Age Reversist Serum, Revision Skincare DEJ Face Cream, and SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream. My moisturizer of choice is Dr. C. Tuna Pure Rose Face Cream. In the morning, I protect my skin with SkinBetter Science Alto Defense Serum and moisturizer. Throughout the day I try really hard to stay hydrated because we lose a lot of water wearing all of the layers of PPE; dehydration can really wreak havoc on our skin.

Shreni, physician, New Jersey

After work, I use the Rodan + Fields brightening line to get rid of scars and dark marks. I also have adult-onset acne, and it helps with that, especially now that it’s gotten worse with wearing a mask, and I use their Redefine line to decrease fine lines and wrinkles. I’ve also been using the brand’s Lash Boost to grow my lashes. I’m not a big makeup person in general because I rub my eyes and smear my makeup. I started wearing Charlotte Tilbury Magic Foundation, though, as a primer under Rodan + Fields.

Delora, licensed practical nurse, Mississippi

I use Burt’s Bees lip balm and Aquaphor for dry chapped lips. CeraVe has great sensitive-skin products that help heal and restore the skin. I love Clinique makeup, and it really holds up well. I especially like the brand’s Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly.

Jackie, physician assistant, Wisconsin

I've been meditating and taking advantage of the Headspace app to decrease my anxiety and stress levels.

Since I cannot go to the salon for a haircut — why I decided shaving my sides before this was a good idea, I have no idea — I watched YouTube tutorials to put my hair in a protective style. I ordered hair online, and this saves me a few days to a few weeks of doing my hair.

My workday makeup routine has changed because of wearing our masks. I’m skipping foundation, and for now I only may do my eyebrows, eyeliner, and mascara. Thank god for Maybelline TattooStudio for my brows and their Liquid Ink Eyeliner and mascara.

I've been breaking out — I'm sure it is a mix of stress and wearing the same mask all day — so I've reached out to some of my colleagues for recommendations for over-the-counter_products/article.htm' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >over-the-counter treatments. I ordered Derma-E Vitamin C Facial Peel, and I'm seeing some improvement. Fingers crossed it helps in the long run.

Stephanie, registered nurse, Wyoming

For the last couple of years I have been using Rodan + Fields Reverse skin care products. The line has a brightening complex to even skin tone and helps prevent lines from forming. It’s been a lifelong battle to cover my dark circles, and they get worse when I’m tired or dehydrated. I use Revlon PhotoReady concealer. And I try to drink a gallon of water a day.

The eyebrows are so important because it’s what people see when they look at you, even more so when wearing a face mask. I always do my eyebrows. Some days I go a little heavier on the pencil than others. For eyeliner, I use Eyeko London Sport Waterproof. I love it because it doesn’t smear.

Idara, registered nurse, New York

I have acne-prone skin, so I’ve been leery about wearing masks all day long. My skin-care routine right now is very simple: a gentle face cleanser (Cetaphil is my staple), moisturizer (I have one formulated by my dermatologist), and an exfoliating mask a few times a week (I love Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Cleansing Masque). With this routine, my face has fared much better than expected.

Emily, registered nurse, Tennessee

I love the Mario Badescu Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs, and Rosewater to calm and refresh my skin after a long shift. I have also been using Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask to unclog all my pores. I put a few Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Drops in my moisturizer so I don’t have to wear any face makeup — it makes my skin look amazing without a drop of foundation.

Christine, registered nurse, Delaware

Because my eyes are the only thing you see when I have a mask on, I do wear eye makeup. I use Estée Lauder mascara, brow pencil, and powder because it looks really natural.

Torri, registered nurse, Missouri

I use Bioré cleanser before and after a shift, then I use Tea Tree Water Toner by Lush. I keep a small spray bottle of Mario Badescu’s Witch Hazel & Rosewater Toner nearby during my shift for a little recharge and refresh during my 12-hour night shifts.

Sarah, doctoral psychology resident, Minnesota

I use Biossance’s Squalane + Marine Algae Eye Cream — I’ve noticed I look a lot more tired lately due to stress and anxiety. It reduces my fine lines and makes me look and feel more rested. I use Aveeno Skin Relief Moisture Repair Cream all over my body, including my face. I have super-sensitive skin and need products that don’t irritate. Due to sanitizing after every patient, my skin is very dry and this product helps replenish and soothe my skin. My dad’s a dermatologist and recommended it for those who have sensitive skin like me.

Courtney, registered nurse, Florida

The masks have caused my skin to be irritated, so I am using Thayers Witch Hazel on cotton pads to keep my pores clean and just some plain Dove soap and water to keep my face healthy and hydrated. I also use Kiehl’s Eye Fuel to help with my puffy eyes and bags. My hands have been dry from all the handwashing so I keep using Kiehl’s hand cream, which is my go-to.

Tierra, registered nurse, Illinois

I come home and take a nice bath with Dr. Teal’s Melatonin Sleep Soak after my shift. I light candles around the tub and just relax, releasing all my frustration and worry from the day...while getting myself ready for the next one. My skin has been wild due to all the PPE, so I use Clean & Clear Morning Burst Facial Cleanser to clean and the brand’s Morning Burst Hydrating Gel Moisturizer for moisture, along with some virgin coconut oil.

Megan, registered nurse, Illinois

I’ve started using Biossance for skin care. I ordered a different facial soap, but normally I use Clearasil. I recently ordered a small kit from Biossance that has eye gel, retinol cream, moisturizer, and rose oil. I can’t wear makeup to work, so I’ve only been putting eye liner on my eyes.

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