Do Spray Sunscreens Actually Work?

spray sunscreen illustration
Illustration by Zoe Hansen for Verywell Health.

Key Takeaways

  • Spray sunscreens are just as effective as lotion sunscreens against UV rays as long as they're used properly.
  • Experts say you should still rub the sunscreen into your skin even if the product is labeled to have a "no rub" formula.
  • Try to look for spray sunscreens that are made without aerosol propellant.

Spray sunscreens, also known as aerosol sunscreens, have been gaining popularity as a convenient sun protection tool without the sticky hassle of lotion sunscreen. Some companies are even promoting facial sunscreen sprays with added benefits, such as a matte finish or hydrating glow. 

But some spray sunscreens have been recalled for having cancer-causing ingredients, and they may not be as effective as regular lotion formulas. Here’s a guide on how to choose the right spray sunscreen and use it properly, according to dermatologists. 

Do You Have to Rub Spray Screen in?

You have to rub the spray sunscreen in after spraying it on your skin and there’s no such thing as a “no rub” formula, according to Steve Daveluy, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and an associate professor in dermatology at Wayne State University.

You should spray an even coat before rubbing to avoid uneven coverage and burns, Daveluy added. If it’s windy outside, spray the sunscreen on your hands and rub it onto your skin. Even if it’s a facial spray, avoid spraying it directly on your face and use your hands to apply the sunscreen instead.

Anne Chapas, MD, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, said parents should also be aware of the direction the wind is blowing when applying spray sunscreen on children.

Is Spray Sunscreen Safe and Effective?

Daveluy said spray sunscreens work just as well as creams or lotions as long as you use them correctly. But try to look for a spray that’s made without an aerosol propellant, which may dilute the sunscreen and harm the environment. 

Propellant was responsible for benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, found in some recalled spray sunscreens, Daveluy said. While benzene wasn’t an added ingredient in these sunscreens, it could have been a byproduct or contamination from propellant.

The levels of benzene found in the recalled sunscreens were also not as high as what people would have been exposed to in gasoline, paints, glues, and cigarette smoke, Daveluy explained. 

The biggest downside to using a spray sunscreen is that you’re prone to applying the product unevenly and incorrectly.

Chapas said it’s difficult to know if you’ve used enough sunscreen to cover all the sun-exposed areas of the body and you might waste more product if you need to use multiple coats.

There’s also the risk of inhaling the spray. While spray sunscreens are safe for our skin and bodies, they shouldn’t be consumed or inhaled. Daveluy said to make sure you never spray directly toward your head or face, especially when it’s windy.

You should also avoid using spray sunscreens near an open flame because the alcohol content in the product is flammable.

When Should You Use a Spray Sunscreen Over Lotion or Cream?

Spray sunscreens do have some advantages over traditional cream or lotion sunscreens.

Daveluy said he loves using spray sunscreen when he’s working out or doing any outdoor activities because it’s easier to apply over sweaty, moist skin.

For Chapas, spray sunscreens are good for those in a hurry because they dry quickly. They can also cover certain body parts that are harder to reach with hands.

Are Mineral Spray Sunscreens Better Than Chemical Ones?

Mineral sunscreens, including spray ones, are becoming popular because they work well for sensitive skin. With zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient, mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation and rashes.

Daveluy said this type of sunscreen “is safer than safe” because the ingredients are also used in diaper rash cream for babies.

Chapas added that mineral sunscreens are also safer for the environment, especially if you’re diving or swimming.

Whether you decide to go with a spray sunscreen this summer or not, the best product is the one that you like and want to use. “For any sunscreen, it’s all about finding something you like so that you will use it regularly,” Daveluy said.

What This Means For You

Spray sunscreens can offer effective sun protection if used correctly. But be careful not to spray the product directly onto your face or head, especially when it's windy. You should also avoid using it near an open flame to avoid burn risks.

1 Source
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  1. Food and Drug Administration. FDA alerts drug manufacturers to the risk of benzene contamination in certain drugs.