Here's Why You Should Still Be Wearing SPF With Your Face Mask

Sun safety is everything in skincare. When you go into the sun without wearing any sunscreen or sun protection gear, you're exposing your skin to blazing UV radiation and what comes with it — sunburns, skin discoloration, premature aging, and increased risk of skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's why it's crucial to put on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher before you go out to protect your skin cells from damaging UVA and UVB rays. Due to the importance of sun protection, theories as to how sunscreen should be worn abound.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people developed the habit of wearing masks whenever they walk out the doors even after lockdown and masking regulations lifted. Technically speaking, face masks are excellent in blocking out respiratory droplets produced when a person coughs or sneezes and reducing viral transmission. On that note, the question that many of us skincare lazybones have is: If masks can protect us from something as aggressive and penetrating as viruses, can they also keep UV rays at bay? It seems reasonable enough to ditch sunscreen when we can wear a face mask to protect part of our face. If that's what you've been believing, you're in for an education on sun protection. Here's what experts have to say about wearing SPF with your face mask.

A face mask alone cannot provide adequate sun protection

As it turns out, face masks can protect you from respiratory viruses, but they are no match for the sun. "A cloth face mask does not provide adequate protection — especially if it is light colored — unless it is a Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) face mask," dermatologist Dr. Marie Hayag explains to InStyle. According to Dr. Hayag, a garment is not deemed sun protective if its UPF score is less than 15. Wearing a UPF face mask gives more UV protection than a typical cotton face mask because it's composed of a higher UV-protective material.

In an interview with Cosmopolitan, dermatologist Orit Markowitz points out that a standard cloth face mask provides only SPF 7 or so of sun protection. That means a conventional face mask cannot protect your skin from the detrimental effects of UV rays, so you'll still need to wear SPF underneath it to give your skin sufficient protection. A three-ply mask — a disposable mask with three layers of non-woven fabric to avert the intake of airborne pollutants — or a mask made of a tightly woven synthetic material like polyester or rayon will likely provide protection of more than SPF 7, according to dermatologist Markowitz. However, the fabric's ability to protect you from the sun is reduced if it stretches or becomes wet. Since conventional face masks can provide so little sun protection, would sun protective masks with UPF be of any help?

Understanding Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF)

Fundamentally, Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) refers to the amount of UV radiation (UVB and UVA) that may pass through a fabric and reach your skin, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. For instance, a UPF 50 fabric filters 98% of the sun's rays while allowing 2% to get through, considerably lowering your risk of sun exposure and sun damage. The Seal of Recommendation from The Skin Cancer Foundation is only given to fabrics with a UPF of 30 or above. Protection from a UPF of 30 to 49 is fairly sufficient, while a UPF of 50+ is considered extremely good for sun protection. The good news is that you can find plenty of face masks and sun-protective clothing with a UPF of 50 or above.

Another thing to keep in mind when shopping for UPF face masks is colors. According to the University of Utah Health, darker colors — such as black, red, and blue — are better choices because they absorb more UV than white and lighter colors. The more intense the color, the higher the protection. A heavily saturated yellow shirt, for example, offers greater protection than a lighter one. Still, there's no such thing as too much sun protection. Even when you're outdoors, you'll still take a break at intervals and expose your face. Therefore, it's important to wear sunscreen even when you cover your face with a mask.