Ask a Dermatologist: Are Moisturizers With SPF Actually Effective?

Updated 04/23/19

Viktor Solomin/Stocksy

I've never been able to understand how moisturizers with SPF could possibly work. See, inherently, sunscreen is meant to sit on the skin to act as a defense between your face and the sun. It doesn't penetrate, because it's supposed to block out all those harmful UV rays. When it comes to moisturizers, on the other hand, their very purpose is to penetrate the skin.

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 as well as properly moisturize it?). And with that in mind, how are there thousands of moisturizers with SPF on the market? There must be some evidence that they're effective, right?

I decided to direct my questions to a few top dermatologists and skincare founders to let the pros break it down. Below, find their thoughts on the moisturizer-with-SPF debate.

What the experts say:

"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.

"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, but she does offer a different opinion. "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."

Meet The Expert

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.

"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."

The gist:

My initial ideas aren't exactly on the money, according to the experts. While they 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 products' lofty 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).

Instead, try a few of our favorite moisturizers:

Ole Henriksen Sheer Transformation Perfecting Moisturizer
Ole Henriksen Sheer Transformation Perfecting Moisturizer $38

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 $127

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 Women
Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream Rich Women $230

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

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream $20

Dermatologists always recommend this one. It's infused with hyaluronic acid, which, by the way, can absorb up to 1000 times its weight in water and 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 $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.

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