Q: If I’m wearing a mask to avoid spreading COVID-19, do I still need to wear sunscreen on my whole face?
This is one of the questions that I’ve received a lot from my patients and my friends. The answer is yes, sunscreen is still so important. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends daily use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher applied every single day and opting for a higher SPF such as 30 if you’re anticipating prolonged sun exposure. These recommendations are just one component of sun-smart behavior, including seeking the shade when possible, wearing a hat and sunglasses and reapplying frequently if you are out for any long period of time or exercising while outside. So yes, wearing a face mask may offer you some additional protection, but it doesn’t replace the need for daily sunscreen use.
How much protection you’re afforded by your face mask depends on its material, with synthetic materials offering greater protection than natural fabrics. It also depends on the color, because darker colors provide better protection, and how tightly woven the material is. Most face masks are made of light cotton material and they probably afford an SPF 7 or so, which is about half of what is recommended for daily use. Some companies are marketing masks labeled as having UPF 50 protection, and you can search for those online.
Also, for the times when you intermittently pull down your face mask, you want to make sure that you have sunscreen all over your entire face to protect those areas that are sometimes covered — but not always. So, remember, just like always, wear a broad-spectrum daily sunscreen every single day, even with your face mask.
About the expert:
Julie K. Karen, MD, is a Mohs surgeon and specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer at CompleteSkinMD in New York City. She is also a clinical assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center.