Ask a Dermatologist: Are Moisturizers With SPF Actually Effective?

woman with her hand over her face while at the beach

Viktor Solomin/Stocksy

We've never been able to fully understand how moisturizers with SPF work. As a rule, sunscreen is meant to sit on the skin to act as a defense between your face and the sun. It doesn't penetrate the skin, because it's supposed to block out all those harmful UV rays. When it comes to moisturizers, on the other hand, the method of action is the opposite. Their very purpose is to penetrate the skin, adding moisture that wasn't already there.

So what gives? How can a product that blends the two together work well on either front (i.e., protect your skin from the sun and properly moisturize it?). And considering that, how is it that there are there thousands of moisturizers with SPF on the market? There must be some evidence that they're effective, right?

The internet didn't help much, so we decided to direct our questions to a few top dermatologists and skincare founders to let the pros break it down.

How Sunscreen and Moisturizers Work

"Sunscreen is not an ingredient," asserts Ulli Haslacher, the founder of Pour Moi Skincare. "It should be treated as a very important layer in your skincare routine and should always be applied last (but before makeup). The purpose of sunscreen is to form a protective film on top of the skin to shield it—SPF is not there to restore moisture balance or deliver ingredients deeper into the skin."

Meet the Expert

Ulli Haslacher is the founder and CEO of German-inspired Pour Moi Skincare. Her brand focuses on the skin's reaction to varying climates and caters to the one you currently live in, allowing for optimum skin health.

Nava Greenfield is a medical dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. Her work has led to contributions to publications such as The Journal of Dermatological Treatment.

"Sunscreen is regulated by the FDA as a drug," she continues, "and those regulations require a specific amount of SPF in order for it to be effective, leaving little room for other active ingredients in a formula. Most importantly, when exposed to air and light, sunscreen becomes ineffective after a short period of time (about 90 minutes max). You need to reapply it if your skin is exposed to the sun. It just not an ingredient to be added to a moisturizer—it is its own layer, and the consumer needs to be better educated about it."

Similarly, Nava Greenfield, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC doesn't recommend combining the two products; however, she has a different view on it. "Although moisturizers penetrate the skin," Greenfield says, "they only get past the very top layer, which pretty much still stays on top of the skin, just like a sunscreen would."

"I do not recommend a moisturizer with SPF, for a different reason," she continues. "Because although it may say SPF 15 or 30 on the label, the amount you put on your face will not be enough to get that much coverage, and it will be diluted out by the moisturizer. So, you will only have an SPF 10 to 12 in effect on your skin. The best way to apply is to put on moisturizer first, then apply an SPF 30 or more each morning at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. That way, you will have the full benefit from the sunscreen."

Avoid Moisturizer and Sunscreen Combo Products

While experts all recommend using both a moisturizer and a separate sunscreen, the reasoning comes from more than just the products' ability to penetrate your skin. Instead, it's about the sunscreen's ability to fully live up to its SPF number, as mixing it with other ingredients dilutes the formula. That, and the fact that you're technically supposed to continually apply sunscreen throughout the day (which you may not want to do with your moisturizer, based on your skin type or the product's price).

Still, while it's not exactly derm-recommended, applying a moisturizer with SPF is better than applying no SPF at all. But because we want the best for you, dear readers, here are our favorite moisturizers and SPF options (separately).

Recommended Moisturizers

Ole Henriksen Sheer Transformation Perfecting Moisturizer

Ole Henriksen Sheer Transformation Perfecting Moisturizer
Ole Henriksen Sheer Transformation Perfecting Moisturizer $40

This little blue pot delivers weightless hydration via an oil-free, silky whipped formula full of multi-fruit acids and licorice and pea extracts. It'll help diminish the appearance of dark spots and discoloration, gently refine uneven skin tone and texture, and prep your skin for makeup.

Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2

Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2
Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 $128

This moisturizer houses the essential lipids (as well as vitamin E and essential oils) to remedy uneven skin texture, fine lines, and free radical damage and deliver improved smoothness, elasticity, moisture levels, and that supple glow.

Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream Rich

Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream Rich Women
Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream Rich $150

This intensely moisturizing blend incorporates purslane meant to reduce redness as well as skullcap extract meant to stimulate your skin's natural collagen production.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream

Hydro Boost Gel-Cream
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream $24

Dermatologists always recommend this one. It's infused with hyaluronic acid, which boasts really incredible results (for an especially wallet-friendly price).

Sunday Riley C.E.O. C + E Antioxidant Protect + Repair Moisturizer

Sunday Riley C.E.O. C + E Antioxidant Protect + Repair Moisturizer
Sunday Riley C.E.O. C + E Antioxidant Protect + Repair Moisturizer $65

For advanced, oxygen-stable vitamin C, C.E.O is your new best friend. It technically includes THD ascorbate, the newer, clinically proven, oil-soluble derivative of vitamin C that penetrates better into the skin. As such, this moisturizer is your best bet to fight the first visible signs of aging, boost youthful-looking skin texture and volume, and provide hydration.

Recommended Sunscreens

CLE Cosmetics CCC+ Cream

CCC Cream
CLE Cosmetics CCC+ Cream $31

Yes, it's a BB/CC-style cream. Yes, it can be used as a moisturizer and SPF in a pinch. But if you moisturize before putting this dream of a product on, you're guaranteed dewy skin for the rest of the day. Like, Instagram-model on vacation dewy. If you've sworn off foundation but want your skin to be evened out a little and highlighted in all the right places, this should be your go-to. It's also super high SPF—no biggie.

Solara Suncare Time Traveler Ageless Daily Face Sunscreen

Time Traveler Ageless Daily Face Sunscreen
Solara Suncare Time Traveler Ageless Daily Face Sunscreen $42

Solara Suncare provide exactly what you want out of a sunscreen brand: they don't use any ingredients banned in the United States or EU, or even potential endocrine disruptors. The brand monitors studies about the potential toxicity of sunscreens, and avoids the ingredients. Plus all their packaging is recyclable.

Algenist Sublime Defense Ultra Lightweight UV Defense Fluid SPF 50

Ultra Lightweight UV Defense Fluid SPF 50
Algenist Sublime Defense Ultra Lightweight UV Defense Fluid SPF 50 $28

This is the perfect sunscreen for people who do not at all like sunscreen. It's made to be worn under makeup, so it goes on super thin (shake it first), but it's high enough SPF to keep you from burning. It's also formulated so as to not cause acne or irritate your skin, so if that's been keeping you from your SPF, it shouldn't now.

Related Stories