Is Spray Sunscreen as Effective as Sunscreen Lotion?

woman applying sunscreen to friend's back

Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

You're likely well aware that everyone should use sunscreen daily, rain or shine. (And if not, consider this breaking news.) It's a skincare habit that admittedly comes with some challenges, like finding a product you like, remembering to apply it daily, and then remembering to reapply it. For that reason, sunscreen formats that make application super easy are always big winners in our book.

Sprays undeniably reign supreme. While they may not be the type you're reaching for daily, their ease really can't be beaten. The only problem? Dermatologists say that if you're not using them correctly, they likely aren't shielding your skin from the sun as much as you think—if at all. So we asked Susan Chon, M.D., Professor of Dermatology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Joshua Zeichner, M.D., Associate Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, to explain why that is, plus share pro tips and tricks for getting the most out of your spray sunscreen.

Meet the Expert

  • Susan Chon, MD, is a Professor of Dermatology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, is an Associate Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

What Is Spray Sunscreen?

As the name suggests, spray sunscreen is simply an aerosolized form of sunscreen, says Chon. Rather than a cream or lotion formula that comes in a tube or bottle, these are sprays that are delivered via a spray can, adds Zeichner.

Is Spray Sunscreen Effective?

The short answer: Yes. Any sunscreen on the market has to undergo FDA testing to confirm any sun protection claims it makes. The long answer-slash-big caveat: Spray sunscreen is only effective if used correctly, caution both of our experts. More specifically, that means following a pretty precise application method (more details on that to come), which is anything but the haphazard "spray-and-go" M.O. that's so common.

The Benefits of Spray Sunscreen

Even the best sunscreen isn't going to do much good if you're not actually using it, and that's where spray formulas have a significant advantage. "Patients tend to like both the lightness of the formulation and the convenience of the spray and are more likely to use it," points out Chon. In other words, the lightweight, non-sticky texture and the fact that it's easy to use a spray pretty much anywhere on your body ups the likelihood of sunscreen compliance.

Common Spray Sunscreen Mistakes

With spray sunscreen, forgetting to rub it in is a common mistake. "Simply spraying the sunscreen onto the skin doesn't evenly distribute it," Chon says. "It needs to be rubbed in to cover all areas adequately."

Holding the can too far away from your body, allowing the wind to blow away all the product, is another common spray sunscreen snafu. "The biggest mistake I see in the summer is a mother attempting to spray down a child who is running away from her and thinking that he or she is adequately protected," says Zeichner. And finally, he adds that simply not applying enough to get the level of sun protection promised is another major misstep.

How to Apply Spray Sunscreen

"Sprays are easy to use. The problem is they're often misused," warns Zeichner. "If you're not using a spray sunscreen the way you should, then you'll have a false sense of sun protection. This can put you at higher risk of sunburn because you're staying outdoors longer, thinking you're protected when you aren't."

To ensure proper application, start by holding the can one inch away from the skin. "Think of using it like spray paint rather than perfume," advises Zeichner. Next, slowly and carefully cover all exposed areas of your body, spraying each spot until the skin glistens. "If you don't see the sunscreen on the skin, it's not there," he points out.

Then make sure to rub it in thoroughly. Not sure if you're using enough? Zeichner says that if you're using it properly and reapplying often enough (ideally every two hours), one can of spray sunscreen should not last you longer than a weekend. Also important: You'll want to apply your sunscreen in an area without much wind so that the product doesn't float away, though it should still be somewhere that's well-ventilated, says Chon. She adds that inhaling spray sunscreen can potentially irritate the lungs, especially for those with conditions such as asthma. To that point, never spray it directly onto your face. If you want to use spray sunscreen on your face, apply it on your hands first, then rub it onto your complexion.

How to Select a Spray Sunscreen

Overall, the same rules you'd follow when choosing any sunscreen still apply when it comes to a spray. Look for the term "broad-spectrum" on the bottle, which means it will protect the skin from UVA and UVB rays, says Zeichner.

Both experts suggest choosing at least an SPF 30 (this is also the recommendation of the American Academy of Dermatology). However, Zeichner notes that it's not a bad idea to err on the side of a higher SPF. "I usually recommend going for the highest SPF value available since you're likely not going to apply as much as you should be."

If you're using it at the beach or while exercising outdoors, make sure you choose a water-resistant formula. Have sensitive skin? Consider looking for mineral-based formulas, particularly ones that rely on zinc oxide, which Chon says are less likely to cause irritation.

The Best Spray Sunscreens

La Roche-Posay
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Sunscreen Lotion Spray SPF 60 $28.00

Zeichner likes this option, lauding a unique texture with the lightweight feel of a spray, though with the hydration of a traditional sunscreen lotion. It's oil- and alcohol-free and touts a nozzle that can spray 360 degrees, making it easy to spritz even hard-to-reach spots like your back.

Coppertone Pure & Simple $11.79

The super gentle, mineral-based formula relies on zinc oxide. Despite the name, it works just as well for adults as it does for babies.

sun bum
Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Spray $16.00

This pick is super sheer and dries down almost instantly, so skin never feels greasy or tacky. It offers broad-spectrum, SPF 50 sun protection, and contains vitamin E for added antioxidant protection.

Vacation Classic Spray SPF 30 $20.00

Sure, this offers the necessary, broad-spectrum SPF 30 protection, is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, and absorbs beautifully—but to be honest, it's the scent that is irresistible. It smells tropical and summery yet elevated (credit the fact that renowned perfumers created it). Plus, the formula is reef-friendly, too.

EltaMD UV Aero Broad-Spectrum SPF 45 $37.00

"This is an ultra-lightweight formula that can be used from head to toe without leaving a heavy or greasy feeling on the skin," says Zeichner. FYI: While it goes on a bit whiter than others, it blends in well and dries to a clear finish.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Sunscreen Spray SPF 70 $11.00

This aptly-named option is indeed one of the most undetectable sunscreens on the market. In addition, it's oil-free and non-comedogenic, a major plus for those prone to body breakouts.

Related Stories