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Does a Beard Provide Any Sun Protection at the Beach?

That spooky Zuckerberg photo has me abstaining from sunscreen, so just wondering about my alternatives

If the ghastly image of Mark Zuckerberg on a mechanized surfboard made you swear to never wear sunscreen again, no problem: Growing a mammoth beard may help keep you safe from the sun, instead. “There’s no question that a thick, black beard, for instance, would give a large measure of protection,” says Robert Brodell, chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

In fact, one study of the sun protection provided by beards concluded, “The ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) provided by the facial hair ranged from 2 to 21.” An ultraviolet protection factor of 21 blocks more than 95 percent of ultraviolet rays, thus reducing your exposure risk significantly. However, an ultraviolet protection factor of 2 blocks only 50 percent of ultraviolet rays, which is good but not great.

As you may have gathered from this range, the size and color of your beard decide how much sun protection it provides. Generally speaking, denser, darker beards are more protective than thinner, lighter ones (this applies to all forms of body hair, but keep in mind that hair on our faces tends to be thicker than hair elsewhere). For example, Brodell singles out the immense beard worn by NBA star James Harden and says, “Nothing’s going through that.” On the flip side, he explains, “If you have the Don Johnson look, that’s not the kind of beard that’s going to give you as much protection.”

Therefore, unless you have a beard like Harden, Brodell still suggests applying sunscreen to the skin beneath your brush when you go outside. But rather than wearing physical sunscreens, like the white film Zuckerberg had on when that fateful photo was snapped, Brodell recommends using chemical sunscreens, which absorb into the skin and are easier to apply without gunking up your beard. Better yet, there are sunscreens specifically formulated to moisturize your beard while protecting the skin underneath.

That way, you can look extra cool on your mechanized surfboard this summer!