As the weather warms up and lake days are added to the calendar, the seemingly age-old debate—spray versus lotion sunscreen—is back.
When it comes to protecting your skin from the sun’s powerful rays, applying sunscreen is one of the most important things you can do. But can the type of sunscreen you use affect how well your skin is protected? Sun Spray
Both spray and lotion sunscreens are very safe to use as long as you are using them correctly, choosing the right SPF level, and applying the proper amount, Elizabeth Hale, MD, board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center told Health.
“All sunscreens on the market have undergone a rigorous FDA process to ensure these are safe and effective,” Dr. Hale explained. “The safest sunscreen is one you will actually use, so choose the formula you are most comfortable with.”
Dr. Hale recommended applying sunscreen every day—regular sunscreen use can reduce your risk of non-melanoma skin cancer. In fact, using sunscreen with at least SPF 15 can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40% and lower your melanoma risk by 50%.
“Most of the UV damage we get is from incidental sun exposure,” Dr. Hale noted. “Incidental sun exposure includes activities where people find themselves getting their skin exposed to the sun unexpectedly, for instance going to and from a car in a parking lot, watching our children’s sporting events, sitting inside an office next to a window, or driving with the sun directly coming through a window onto our skin.”
When selecting a sunscreen, a higher SPF is generally better—up to a certain point, Vivian Chin, MD, MPH, skin care and cosmetic physician and founder of Koru Wellness & Aesthetics told Health. “The SPF number stands for Sun Protection Factor, which is about how much longer you can be in the sun without causing sunburn or skin damage compared to skin without sunscreen.”
An SPF of 30 suggests you can stay out for 30 times longer before your skin starts to get red, provided you follow the instructions exactly on the package, Dr. Chin continued. “However, in real life, most people don’t follow the directions exactly—applying 30 minutes before sun exposure, re-applying every two to three hours—especially after lots of sweating or toweling off.”
For some people, a higher SPF can give a false sense of security and result in not reapplying sunscreen as often as you should.
“I generally recommend a water-resistant broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher for most activities,” she added. “If you’re closer to the equator...or have a history of skin cancer or a skin condition that [increases the risk of] skin cancer, a higher SPF like 50 or more would be recommended.”
Spray sunscreens have gained popularity with their easy-to-use, non-greasy formulas, Adrienne O’Connell, DO, expert aesthetic and wellness specialist and medical director and president at Laguna Beach Aesthetics told Health. But spray sunscreen can be harder to apply evenly and can sometimes be blown away in the wind before hitting your skin.
“Spraying at your body directly will often get more in the air than on your body itself,” Dr. Chin pointed out. To combat this issue, she advised spraying the sunscreen on your palms and then massage it onto your face or body.
If you choose a spray sunscreen due to its convenience, then it’s important to be diligent in your application and try your best not to miss any spots, added Wendy Long Mitchell, MD, FAAD, FACMS, a dermatologist and medical advisor to GRYT. “A lot of the product may go elsewhere besides your skin and it is hard to determine if you applied evenly and if enough got on your skin or in the air around you.”
Due to the application, spray sunscreens don’t offer as much coverage as lotion sunscreens, Dr. Mitchel noted. “But if you don’t have lotion sunscreen on hand, the spray version will be sufficient enough—but not for long. You’ll have to apply more spray sunscreen than lotion in the long run.”
What’s more, research has shown that while spray-on sunscreens are often fast drying, they are not clearly visible once sprayed onto the skin.
Also, the chemical sunscreen ingredients in sprays can cause allergic contact dermatitis and photo-allergic contact dermatitis in some people. Most of the time, people are reacting to octocrylene, oxybenzone, and octyl methoxycinnamate. If you have sensitive skin, a spray sunscreen may not be the best option.
Benzene is a known chemical carcinogen that has been linked to certain cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, Dr. Hale explained. Typically, benzene is used when manufacturing petroleum and plastic, so everyone is exposed to this chemical on a regular basis in things like gasoline, pollution, and cigarette smoke, she said.
“Back in the summer of 2021, it was detected in trace amounts in certain sunscreens,” Dr. Hale continued. “However, this was a supply chain issue that led to [the] contamination of certain batches of product. This is not currently an issue with sunscreen active ingredients.”
Since then, a study conducted by a third party tested 294 unique batches of sunscreen and after-sun care products and found that benzene was not detected in 73% of the sunscreen products tested (217 batches from 66 brands). They concluded that “avoiding an effective preventative measure against UV radiation could be more harmful than exposure to trace amounts of benzene.”
When people think of sunscreen lotions, they remember the white creams that never seemed to sink in. But Dr. Hale pointed out that lotion sunscreen has come a long way, with formulas that are much more advanced.
The biggest pro of lotion sunscreen is you can see where you are applying it so you don’t miss any areas on your body. But they also can be a little tricky to apply to certain areas—like the scalp. (This is where a spray might be better.)
“I prefer using a lotion sunscreen on the face to prevent possible inhalation from sprays,” explained Dr. O’Connell. “Aerosolized sprays can irritate the lungs if inhaled. I also like using sunscreen specific to the face for the face as they usually will contain hydrating and anti-aging ingredients such as hyaluronic acid.”
While lotions tend to be more expensive than spray sunscreens, lotions are more common and so they are often easier to find, Dr. Chin noted. “But, due to the generally thicker formulas, it can take a little longer to make sure the lotion is all rubbed in and the extra time may discourage people from applying and reapplying.”
Some people dislike the fact that lotion sunscreen can leave a whitish tint on the skin if they contain ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxides, she added. “But there are more elegant formulations nowadays that use micronized ingredients, or tinted sunscreens, to prevent that whitish tint.”
If you’re used to a particular facial sunscreen and prefer a different option for your body, it is perfectly safe to mix and match sunscreens, said Dr. Chin. This is particularly appealing if you are someone who is prone to allergies or rashes. In fact, Dr. Chin recommended a sunscreen lotion (as opposed to a chemical sunscreen) as they are less likely to cause reactions.
“[But], my favorite sunscreen is the one that actually gets used,” Dr. Chin concluded. “If it’s easier for you to apply a spray sunscreen to the body but a separate sunscreen for the face, by all means, do so.”
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