Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) & Copper Face Masks- Do They Work?

05 September 2020

ltUltraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) & Copper Face Masks- Do They Work?


One of my fabric face masks. Dark colours like navy blue provide additional UPF protection against UV rays from the sun.


Maskne (mask induced acne) is real; so it makes sense to go easy on your skin routine; and perhaps skimp on sunscreen use. Acne related to mask wearing is on the rise due to prolonged use of face masks in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As I’ve shared in my blogpost Maskne: How to Avoid Acne From Wearing Surgical Face Masks, maskne arises due to friction from the face masks and build up of humidity, sweat and dirt in the masked area.


I also shared about maskne and the impact of COVID-19 on consumer trends with Wunderman Thompson, a global consultancy and marketing furm in this report Brands Rush to Soothe Mask-Wearers’ Skin Problems.


Treating maskne

Treating maskne is similar to bacteria acne; with one difference- skin affected by maskne is more sensitive and inflamed. Hence, skincare, medications and acne treatments need to avoid worsening the sensitivity and inflammation with maskne.


Related blogposts:

Acne: Types, Causes, Treatments and Tips for Prevention

Acne and Diet: Foods to Avoid for Less Pimples

Fungal Acne Is Not Acne At All: Malassezia Folliculitis Explained

5 Skincare Tips for Sensitive Skin and Rosacea


One tip to avoid mask induced pimples is to go light with skincare application- skipping makeup if possible (besides, makeup transfer to the mask decreases its filtration capacity); wearing face masks with breathable fabrics and using non-comedogenic, lightweight lotions and gels instead of creams. In this same vein, it would seem that logical to also skip sunscreen right?


UVA and UVB rays from the sun damage to the skin. Image credit: Wall Street Journal.




Do I need to wear sunscreen under face masks?

Most of us are familiar with the signs of unprotected sun exposure in the skin and the importance of wearing sunscreen. Premature skin aging- blemishes, hyperpigmentation and wrinkles; and skin cancer are some of these signs. It may seem intuitive that since our faces are covered by face masks, sunscreen is not needed as the masks block out UV rays.


Related blogposts:

How to Lighten Pigmentation and Dark Spots with Skincare

3 Essential Skincare Steps for Healthy Skin

Baby Botox and Preventive Botox in Your 20’s Is Real


However, face masks do not provide adequate protection against UV rays from the sun; even if they contain multiple layers of fabrics. In fact, more ‘breathable’ fabrics have a looser weave and poorer UV blocking capabilities. To stay protected while being masked up, use a sunscreen under your face masks. My recommendations for lightweight and non-comedogenic sunscreens are in this blogpost Sunscreen Reviews: the Best, the Worst and Unsafe Ones I’ve Tried.


Related blogposts:

Sunscreen Beyond the Basics: Controversies, Trends and FAQs about Sunscreen

Sunscreen Beyond the Basics II: Sunscreen Safety and What You Should Avoid

Sunscreen Beyond the Basics III: Do Children Need Sunscreen?


Last week, I ran a poll on my Instagram stories to find out about my audience’s take on sunscreen use under face masks. Most of you got the answer right!


If you find that your usual sunscreen irritates the skin more than usual because of maskne, consider using sunscreen with physical filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Physical sunscreen filters are less likely to irritate the skin compared to chemical sunscreen filters. The drawback of physical sunscreen filters? The white cast that can make one’s skin look ashy. You might have to compromise with a sunscreen that contains a combination of physical and chemical sunscreen filters. For skincare active ingredients for maskne, please read Maskne: How to Avoid Acne From Wearing Surgical Face Masks.


Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) is a measure of a fabric’s ability to block UVA and UVB rays from reaching the skin.


Choosing a face mask for maximum sun UV protection

The choice of face masks can affect the amount of its UV protection. Here’s a guide to the factors that affect a face mask’s UV blocking capacity:

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF)– UPF is an indicator of the amount of UV radiation (both UVA and UVB) that can penetrate a fabric to reach the user’s skin. The higher the UPF, the better the protection against UV rays. A face mask with UPF 50 allows 2% (1/50) of UV rays. A fabric that is UPF 25 allows 4% (1/25) of rays to reach the skin. Some fashion brands such as Uniqlo indicate the UPF value of their face masks.


Fabrics commonly used for clothes in summer have a UPF of 6-7. Choosing a mask fabric with UPF above 30 significantly reduces the amount of UV rays reaching the skin. The UPF of a fabric is dependent on its colour, density, material and weave.


 Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) vs Sun Protection Factor (SPF ) in a nutshell.


Colours- Dark colours like black and navy offer better protection against UV rays than lighter colours. Dark colours absorb UV rays better to prevent their penetration to the underlying skin.

Thickness- Thicker fabrics offer better protection than thinner fabrics. Corduroy blocks out more UV rays than cotton; although it is unlikely that anyone would wear a denim face mask.

Tightness of weave- Tighter weaves have smaller holes between the threads and block out more UV rays. Conversely, more breathable cotton masks block out less UV rays.

Material- Generally, synthetic materials (e.g. polyester, rayon) offer better protection than natural ones. Some fabrics may be pretreated with dyes or chemicals to prevent penetration of UV rays.

Area of coverage- Needless to say, the larger the surface area covered by the face mask, the better the UV protection than an unmasked area of skin.

Fit (Tightness of fit)- Ensure that the fit of the mask is just right. A tight fit is not advised as the fabric stretches and the fibres are pulled from each other. This allows more virus particles and UV rays to reach the skin. If the mask fit is too loose, the filtration capacity at the loose corners of the masks will be reduced.


Image credit: New York Times. This report is worth a read before you splurge on a copper ion infused face mask.


Copper Face Masks

Copper infused face masks are currently trending for their supposed antiviral benefits against Covid-19. Copper’s antimicrobial properties are due its ability to generate free radical and damage the cell membrane of viruses.


A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2020 showed that the Covid-19 virus survived on copper in a lab for 4 hours; compared to 24 hours on a cardboard surface. So while copper can slow down transmission of the virus in a lab, it is unclear whether a face mask infused with copper has antiviral effects as a copper surface in a lab. So far, copper infused fabrics have not shown to be superior to cloth face masks or N95 face masks. More research is needed to ascertain the efficacy of copper face masks against Covid-19 and the factors that affect its performance e.g. percentage of copper, mesh weave of fabric etc.


Some of the other problems with copper infused masks surfaced by experts are also practical and logical issues. If your copper impregnated face mask has a poor fit, you are not impervious to an infection. Copper metal surfaces are also vastly different from a copper infused fabric face mask. A copper infused fabric face mask that contains 1% of copper is very different from a solid copper metal surface. Repeated usage and washing also stretches the face mask, so the durability and weave of the face mask get compromised over time.


So if you’re thinking about getting a copper infused face mask; there is no harm in splurging on one. Copper infused face masks may confer additional antiviral benefits if you come into contact with the virus. However, regular standard protections are still important (i.e. fitting face masks, hand hygiene…etc). I’m personally choosing surgical face masks or N95 over copper face masks for protection though.



Conclusion on UPF and copper infused face masks.

As we adapt to the unprecedented changes and challenges brought about by Covid-19; some of us have chosen to find fun in our sartorial mask choices. I hope that you have found this blogpost useful in shaping safer consumer choices in face masks. May your mask fit, be dark in colour and contain UPF.


Related Covid-19 blogposts:

How to Improve Your Immunity Against Covid-19

Covid-19: How to Prevent Treat Hands from Washing

5 Skin Conditions Linked to Covid-19: Hives to Covid Toes




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