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Sunscreen spray vs. lotion: which one works better?

Experts weigh their pros and cons.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 21, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Spraying on Sunscreen
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 21, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

You know by now that sunscreen is an essential part of any skincare routine. Whether you’re spending a day at the beach or simply going for a walk, you’re going to want to slather some on before stepping outside.

Sunscreen lotions are a tried-and-true option, but they can be messy and difficult to apply. Sunscreen sprays are an attractive alternative since they’re quick and easy to administer. But do sprays actually work as well as lotions? Here, Curology’s skincare pros will explain what you need to know about the pros and cons of each option.

What makes for an effective sunscreen?

Before we compare the specifics of lotions and sprays, let’s take a look at what makes sunscreen effective. You’re going to want to choose one that has the term “broad-spectrum” on the label, meaning it offers protection against UVA and UVB rays. 

Why do you need a barrier against both types? UVA rays primarily cause signs of aging on the skin, such as wrinkles, while UVB rays can lead to painful sunburns.¹ The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with at least a 30 sun protection factor (SPF 30) or higher.² 

It’s also important to make sure you apply the correct amount of product. The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends using one ounce of sunscreen, or the amount in a shot glass, to protect your whole body.³

If you’re going to the beach or pool, choose a formula that specifies that it’s water-resistant on the label. And don’t forget to re-apply: For water-resistant sunscreens, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that labels recommend re-applying after 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, immediately after towel drying, and at least every 2 hours.⁴ For sunscreens that aren’t water-resistant, re-apply at least every two hours. 

While you’re looking at the label, also check that it shows FDA-approved ingredients that effectively block UVA and UVB rays. The FDA lists zinc oxide (up to 25%), titanium dioxide (up to 25%), oxybenzone (up to 6%), and homosalate (up to 15%) as active sunscreen ingredients, among others.⁵ 

Sunscreen spray pros 

It may sound more fun to spritz on your sunscreen than to rub it in—but there are other specific reasons you may want to go for sunscreen sprays over lotion.

Spray is easy to apply

Instead of spending precious minutes in the sun carefully rubbing in lotion (especially if you have to re-apply every 40 minutes), you can quickly cover your whole body with a sunscreen spray.

Spray feels good on your skin

Most sunscreen sprays produce a cooling effect on your skin, which can be a refreshing feeling after you’ve spent hours in the sun. This may also make you more likely to want to apply it.

Spray can be as effective as lotion

When applied correctly, spray sunscreens have been proven to work as well as lotion versions.⁶ They also have the potential to provide full-body coverage if used properly. Even if you don’t apply enough (a common problem with spray sunscreens), one study found that using sunscreen with an SPF of 70 or higher may compensate for insufficient application.⁷

Sunscreen spray cons

Before you replace all your lotions with sprays, however, you may want to keep these potential downsides in mind.

Spray can be difficult to apply properly

A sunscreen spray’s protection all depends on how you apply it. If you’re in a windy area, it can easily get blown away and end up in the air instead of on your skin. Additionally, because it typically dries quickly and is difficult to see on your skin, you may not be able to tell where you applied it.

Most people don’t know that you still need to rub in spray sunscreen. One study found that all participants who applied spray and then went to the beach developed sunburns, even after reapplying every two hours. The causes were determined to be missed spots when applying and failure to rub in the product.⁸

Spray is usually flammable

In rare instances, there have been reported cases where it has combusted on human skin after being exposed to open flames.⁹

Inhaling spray may be harmful

Inhaling aerosol sunscreen spray may be harmful to our health. More research is needed to determine exactly what are the potential negative effects of breathing in these products.¹⁰ 

Sunscreen lotion pros 

Lotion sunscreens are the tried-and-true option—let’s consider why these products are so effective.

Lotion is generally easier to tolerate

Because it’s a lotion rather than a spray, people are generally more comfortable applying it on their sensitive skin, dry skin, and face, especially as they may not want to risk inhalation. One study showed that 68.5% of people applied sunscreen lotion on their face, while only 37.6% of people using spray sunscreen did the same.¹¹ Your face needs sun protection just as much as the rest of your body, and using a lotion may increase the likelihood of facial usage.

Lotion sunscreens have more options

If you’re in the market for a lotion sunscreen, you have a wide variety of options. Some brands make sunscreen-moisturizer hybrids, incorporating hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, shea butter, and glycerin. Others include skin-friendly ingredients like antioxidants and aloe vera. 

If you’re looking to protect your face without leaving a white cast on your skin, try a tinted sunscreen that will blend in more easily. Or, go for a lotion like The Sunscreen, which melts into every skin tone while minimizing white cast.

Lotion is easier to apply properly

It may be more tedious to apply lotion sunscreens, but it’s easier to ensure you’re getting full-body coverage—you can typically see which areas are well applied, and which areas need further application.

Sunscreen lotion cons

Alongside these benefits, there are a few potential downsides to sticking with lotion sunscreens that are worthy of consideration.

Lotion may leave a white cast

Despite your best efforts to properly rub them in, sunscreen lotions may leave a white cast on your skin. This can be even more obvious on darker skin tones and certain skin types, or if you have a bad sunburn (in which case, you may want to stay out of the sun completely). 

Lotion can be tedious to apply

There’s no doubt lotion sunscreens can be more time-consuming (and shall we say, less fun?) to apply than spray cans. It can be a strenuous process making sure every part of your body gets covered and that the product gets rubbed in completely. For this reason, people prefer the simple application of sunscreen sprays.

Can sunscreen irritate my skin?

Whether you use a spray or a lotion, there is a possibility it could cause an allergic reaction. In an analysis of 52 sunscreens from popular brands, none were found to be completely allergen-free. However, sprays have an increased risk of causing airborne contact dermatitis.¹²

Before trying out a new type of sunscreen, it’s a good idea to consult a licensed dermatology provider, like those at Curology. If you experience an unexpected or allergic reaction to any type of sunscreen, seek medical attention.

Notably, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the two primary sun-blocking ingredients in The Sunscreen, don’t have skin-irritating properties.¹³ 

Curology offers sunscreen with SPF 30

If you’re looking for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that won’t clog pores or leave an obvious white cast, check out our Everyday Sunscreen. But don’t forget that your lips need help too—and The Lip Balm uses shea butter and zinc oxide to provide hydration as well as sun protection.

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If you have questions about what type of sunscreen may work best on your skin, we have answers. To consult with a licensed dermatology provider at Curology, all you have to do is send us a photo of your skin and complete a questionnaire about your skin concerns and goals. If Curology is right for you, you’ll receive a personalized treatment plan, plus a consultation with a licensed dermatology provider. To get started, sign up for a trial* today.

FAQs

Do dermatologists recommend spray sunscreen?

Dermatologists say that using any sunscreen regularly is better than using none at all.¹⁴ And when applied correctly, spray cans were found to be just as effective as lotion. So if using spray sunscreen means you’re more likely to apply, we say go for it. However, it’s important to make sure you’re using it properly for adequate coverage.

Which form of sunscreen is best?

It all depends on your needs and how you apply it. Some dermatologists recommend applying lotion sunscreen in the morning, while a spray may be easier for touch-ups in between swims or workouts.

What are common mistakes with using spray sunscreen?

There are a few mistakes that are easy to make when it comes to sunscreen spray. Here are some common ones:

  • Not rubbing it in

  • Spraying in windy areas or at the wrong angle

  • Not covering your whole body

  • Not spraying for long enough

  • Forgetting to re-apply

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. (2023, February 17).

  2. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. (2020, December 14).

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  4. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Over-the-Counter Monograph M020: Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use. (2021, September 24). 

  5. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Over-the-Counter Monograph M020: Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use. Ibid.

  6. Teplitz, R.W., et al. Trends in US sunscreen formulations: Impact of increasing spray usage. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (January 2018).

  7. Ou-Yang, H., et al. High-SPF sunscreens (SPF ≥ 70) may provide ultraviolet protection above minimal recommended levels by adequately compensating for lower sunscreen user application amounts. J Am Acad Dermatol. (December 2012). 

  8. Barr, J. Spray-on sunscreens need a good rub. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (January 2005).

  9. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. Ibid.

  10. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. Ibid.

  11. Oh, M., et al. Study on Consumer Exposure to Sun Spray and Sun Cream in South Korea. Toxicol Res. (2019, October 15).

  12. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. (2019, May 23).

  13. Smijs, T.G. and Pavel, S. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. Nanotechnology Science and Applications. (2011, October 13).

  14. Teplitz, R.W., et al. Trends in US sunscreen formulations: Impact of increasing spray usage. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

*Cancel at any time. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

**Sunscreen cannot prevent all harm from UV rays.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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