Here's how to avoid 'mask burns,' according to a dermatologist

·5 min read
A mask sunburn after forgetting to apply daily sunscreen. (Getty Images)
A mask sunburn after forgetting to apply daily sunscreen. (Getty Images)

When Carsyn Kohns posted a TikTok video showing the fragmented sunburn her sister got after forgetting sunscreen during her graduation, It's unlikely she imagined it would rack up 1.3 million views. But as the summer approaches and many states continue to require mask-wearing, it seems that the caption Kohns added under the video is about to become increasingly important: "Wear sunscreen kids." 

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Dr. Rina Mary Allawh, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group’s King of Prussia, Penn. office as well as a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, confirms that sunscreen is key in the coming months. "During the summer months, we are not only outdoors more than during the late fall and winter months, [but] in general we are exposed to more UVB rays as less of the UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer."

Research has shown that UVB rays are more damaging than UVA rays. Repeated exposure to UVB rays — without barriers such as sunscreen — "damages the DNA in skin cells, producing genetic defects, or mutations, that can lead to skin cancer," according to SkinCancer.org. As the sun gets hotter in the coming months, Allawh shares what else you need to know about mask-wearing and avoiding sunburns. 

Recognize that even one sunburn can increase your risk of skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., affecting — according to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans over their lifetime. Allawh says that severe sunburns greatly increase the risk of skin cancer. "Even one blistering sunburn during childhood can nearly double a person's chance of developing a melanoma later in life," says Allawh. "These are all reasons as to why daily sunscreen use and diligent sun protection is essential to prevent skin cancer and early skin aging."

Apply sunscreen to your entire face, even the part that is covered by a mask

Although many TikTokkers and others have taken to social media to show sunburns on the top half of their face, Allawh says that the bottom half shouldn't be neglected either. "With wearing masks, many of my patients feel as though they do not need sunscreen daily — this is in fact not true," she tells Yahoo Life. "Though masks do provide a layer of protection, most masks do not contain 'UPF.'"

UPF stands for "UV protective factor" and is used to measure the level of protection that certain fabrics and garments provide against UV rays (similar to the use of "SPF" for sunscreen). Allawh says that fabric isn't naturally able to prevent these rays. "UV-protective clothing contains ultraviolet protection factor [UPF], which helps to block both UVA and UVB rays," she says. "So despite wearing a mask, it is important to still protect your entire face with sunscreen."

Remember that sunburns can occur even when the sun is not visible

It may be tempting to skip sunscreen on cloudy days and assume you're safe from the sun's rays, but Allawh says that would be a mistake. "Sunburns occur if the skin gets too much sun with minimal proper protection — and, yes, they can occur on even cloudy or overcast days," says Allawh. "[The] majority of sunburns are mild, also known as first-degree sunburn, causing some erythema (redness) and [are] painful when touching the skin. This type of sunburn only affects the most outer layer of the skin."

Treat mild burns like these with a cold compress and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine

Sunburns that are mild in nature will typically cause a small amount of redness and minimal pain. "Some sunburns may not necessarily peel, and this is due to the depth of the sun damage from the UV rays," says Allawh. "A sunburn triggers skin redness and inflammation, which is what attributes to swelling, pain and burning. If the inflammation is mild, localized on the top layer of the skin, then one may expect skin redness but may not experience shedding of the top layer of the skin, also referred to as desquamation."

The most important step, says Allawh, is immediately "cooling" the skin and getting out of the sun. "Move to a sun-protected area, apply cool compresses to the exposed skin, frequent skin moisturization and oral anti-inflammatory nonsteroidal medication [e.g., ibuprofen] every six to eight hours are helpful to treating a sunburn," says Allawh. "Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, available over the counter, block a substance called prostaglandin, which is involved in the inflammatory response and will help reduce the redness, pain and swelling."

Pay close attention to more severe burns, especially those that peel

Allawh says that when the skin begins to peel or blister, it's a sign of more serious damage. "Severe sunburns such as second and third-degree sunburns are characterized as intense erythema [redness], pain, blistering, swelling and sometimes other symptoms including headache, chills, fatigue, abdominal pain or even a fever," she says. "These severe sunburns compromise the integrity of the protective skin barrier and the ability of the body to maintain an internal equilibrium. When this occurs, seeking medical attention is strongly recommended given a concern for sun poisoning."

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