The Right Way to Use Brush-On Powder Sunscreens, According to Dermatologists

woman applying powder sunscreen to chest


With sunscreen formulas evolving far beyond the goopy white iterations of your childhood, it's easier than ever to wear SPF every single day. And one such development—powder sunscreen—makes it easier than ever to re-apply throughout the day. So, how exactly do you use powder sunscreen, and does it suffice as your first line of defense? Ahead, board-certified dermatologists Dr. Shari Marchbein, Dr. Anna Guanche, and Dr. Jason Emer share everything you need to know about using, applying, and re-applying SPF with powder sunscreen.

Meet the Expert

  • Shari Marchbein, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine.
  • Anna Guanche, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Bella Skin Institute in Calabasas.
  • Jason Emer, MD, is a board-certified, cosmetic dermatologic surgeon based in West Hollywood, CA.

What Is Powder Sunscreen?

Powder sunscreen is an easy-to-apply sunscreen that mimics the texture of setting powder. Most formulas come with a built-in brush for easy application and portability. Marchbein explains, “The powders often come loose in a retractable brush or are in a compact form. They are extremely lightweight, so they're especially good in the summer months because they can mattify the skin, are easy to use over makeup, and for reapplication, and aren’t heavy like a cream or lotion.”

Though, she warns, “That being said, sunscreen efficacy is as much about quantity as it is about the SPF number listed (which represents UVB blockage), and the real question is whether or not you can get enough powder SPF applied to the skin to make it an effective method of sun protection.”

Is Powder Sunscreen Effective?

The short answer is yes—but not when you use it as your primary or initial sunscreen. To effectively use powder sunscreen, it should be used as a reapplication or touch-up method every two hours after first applying a traditional, liquid sunscreen. In terms of efficacy, Marchbein notes that traditional creams and lotions tend to have the best coverage, and "a shot glass amount (1 ounce) of broad-spectrum sunscreen should be applied to the body and a teaspoon amount to the face every two hours. "An initial thick layer of sunscreen can be applied under makeup, and then reapplied over the top every two hours." This, she says, is where spray and powder SPF comes in—as they are ideal for reapplication, not a primary method of sun protection.

Emer agrees, saying "In my opinion, they are less effective than a topical cream or spray because they have less ability to absorb into the skin or on the surface and create a barrier. Plus, they are often less SPF than most topical creams, which means you need to apply them more frequently to get a true 'full' protection." Both experts agree that powder SPF, though effective, should not be relied upon as your primary form of sunscreen and instead, be used for protective touch-ups throughout the day.

The Benefits of Powder Sunscreen

  • Won't mess up your makeup: Powdered sunscreens feel more like setting powder than they do like the white goop you probably associate with SPF, which means you can easily reapply your sunscreen (every two hours!) over makeup.
  • Works for sensitive skin: Ingredients (typically zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are ideal for sensitive skin, says Marchbein.
  • Portable: Most powder sunscreens are packaged in a tube about the size of a small bottle of hand lotion, or in a compact, which means they can fit in your smallest clutch bag.
  • Some may offer blue light protection: Marchbein explains that some formulations of powder sunscreen contain iron oxide, "which helps with blue light protection and can even contain hyaluronic acid and other hydrating ingredients for the skin as well as antioxidants to protect against infrared damage. "

Common Powder Sunscreen Mistakes

  1. Using powdered sunscreen as your primary sunscreen: Both Marchbein and Emer stress that it should be used for touch-ups and as supplemental sunscreen, not as your one and only.
  2. Uneven application: It's difficult to control the coverage areas and quantity with loose powder, even if in a built-in brush form.
  3. Using on your body: Powder sunscreen is intended for use on your face, neck, and décolletage area, if exposed, and not on your arms and legs.
  4. Misunderstanding SPF: Did you know that the SPF number on a sun protection product is, "only accurate if a shot glass amount is applied to the body and a teaspoon amount to the face, every two hours" according to Marchbein? This leaves a lot of room for user error when dealing with powders.

What to Look For in a Powder Sunscreen Formula

To select the powdered sunscreen that's right for you, both Marchbein and Emer shared similar recommendations to look out for.

First things first, both dermatologists recommend finding a formulation that is broad-spectrum —meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays and is at least SPF 30+. If possible, Emer suggests looking for formulas containing titanium or zinc, noting that they "are chemical-free and are physically blocking and are less irritating if you have sensitive skin." Ingredients to look out for include ceramide 3 and olive glycerides for hydration, as well as antioxidants, vitamin E, and vitamin C for their anti-aging properties and to help fight free radicals.

Emer says that iron oxide can be added as an additional "mineral blocking agent" compared to the traditional zinc and titanium, and Marchbein adds that iron oxide offers some blue light protection as well.

When summer hits, Marchbein adds, "Keep in mind that using a high SPF (at least 30 but ideally 50+) broad-spectrum sunscreen is only one component to safe sun practices, and wearing clothing including sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and sun-protective clothing (labeled UPF50+) or at the very least long sleeves and pants, are also key to preventing sunburns and tans (and, therefore, sun damage and skin cancers)."

Dermatologist-Approved Powder Sunscreens

Supergoop Re(setting) SPF powder
Supergoop! (Re)setting 100% Mineral Powder SPF 35 $35.00

This option from Supergoop is 100 percent mineral zinc oxide with a few extra bonus ingredients to keep skin looking and feeling healthy. There are ceramides and olive glycerides that help protect the skin from getting dry by sealing in moisture and coated silica that makes your face look flawless.

colorscience powder sunscreen
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 $138.00

Dr. Anna Guanche, board-certified dermatologist, recommends this sunscreen because it's so easy to use. "It is easy to apply and re-apply while you are out and about. It is mattifying as well so that it gives the skin an even look and reduces mid-face shine," she says.

ISDIN powder sunscreen
ISDIN Isdinceutics Mineral Brush $55.00

If you're looking for an option you can easily toss in your purse for on-the-go touchups, Guanche says this is a great option. "ISDIN has a combination of physical blockers that protect the skin from UV and IR radiation. It mattifies the skin and is easy to take with you in your purse or bag."

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