Sunscreen is sunscreen, so you’d think the way you apply it doesn’t really matter. However, choosing between cream or lotion and a spray-on sunscreen can impact the likelihood you’ll use it, the amount of coverage on your skin, and even the actual protection you get. Let’s find out which might be better for you in this sunscreen showdown.
Since the weather has been so unbelievably hot, we’ve decided to give this article a re-run. Don’t forget to put on sunscreen when you’re out and about in the blistering heat!
Choosing sunscreen isn’t rocket science, but it can sure as hell feel like it when you have multiple options and your skin health is on the line. Most of the major sunscreen brands, such as Banana Boat and Nivea make all kinds of sunscreen, including creams, lotions, gels, sticks and sprays. We’re sticking to creams/lotions versus sprays, because they’re the most widely available and often used. Here’s a closer look at our contenders:
- Cream and Lotion Sunscreens: Most creamy sunscreens come in a bottle or tube, and you use and apply them just like you would any other moisturizer or lotion. It does take time to make sure the cream or lotion gets worked into your skin. Afterward, you’re left with slick, greasy hands and a “heavy” sort of feeling. Because I’m outdoors and sweating a lot, I prefer Banana Boat’s Sport Performance line; and perhaps I’ve gotten used to the feeling, but it doesn’t have that unpleasant heaviness on my skin.
- Spray Sunscreens: Sprays are popular because of their ease of application, especially among parents who need to quickly get sunscreen on their kids before they run off and play. Application is a breeze, just spray a little on each area of your exposed body parts for a second or two and you’re done. Spray sunscreens earn bonus points for not leaving a goopy mess on your hands, and avoiding oily and sticky films on your skin after application.
Right off the bat, you’re probably thinking that sprays are just a lot more hassle-free. And you’re right, but convenience doesn’t always mean better.
Sprays Are Convenient, But Dermatologists Have Concerns About Them
Most of us know that sunscreen is important, but that’s not enough to make everyone put it on. Common reasons people forgo sunscreen include greasiness, simple forgetfulness and that it takes too much time to apply. Sprays remove some of these problems as they’re far easier to apply, both on yourself and on kids. As fellow Lifehacker contributor Beth Skwarecki once wrote: “I use sprays to get my back if I’m by myself, and to cover my squirmiest child — both cases where it’s either a spray or nothing.”
While sprays are convenient, the US equivalent of CHOICE, Consumer Reports, has actually advised against spraying sunscreen on your kids. Currently, various research groups are still studying sunscreen spray’s safety and efficacy, particularly the health risks from accidentally inhaling the fumes.
So what about cream-based or lotion-based sunscreen? The upside to taking that extra time to massage creamy sunscreen into your skin is that many sunscreens also function as a moisturizer. I typically put it on last, after my primary moisturizer because my skin is on the drier side. Some people may not need additional moisturizer, and just one that includes sun protection will be enough.
Cream Based Sunscreens Cost a Little Less, But It’s Not That Simple
At first, I tried comparing the prices of several popular brands, then I realised they’re actually really difficult to compare in a meaningful way.
Prices vary among brands, but in general cost seems to go up slightly along with SPF (and any other special features like “hydrating” or “water-resistant.”) In order to look at it from a head-to-head standpoint, I had to choose the same brand, with the same SPF and features. On the whole, the difference in price was pretty negligible: sprays are slightly more expensive but most brands do not make you pay through the nose for the privilege.
With that said, the prices don’t take into account how you use sprays versus lotions and creams. The biggest confounding variable here is how much you actually apply when you put it on. As a guideline, you should use roughly a shot glass full, of cream or lotion sunscreen for your whole body with your swimming gear on, but many of us only use significantly less.
If we assume that a normal person only uses half a shot glass of sunscreen every time they apply, then hypothetically they would get about 16 uses out of a 250ml bottle of cream. But spray is trickier. At least in everyday use, we can’t accurately measure the amount of mist that’s actually on our body. Skin care blog Future Derm ran a small experiment to try to measure it, and surmised that you get roughly seven milliliters of sunscreen with approximately two-seconds of continuous spray on, say, your forearm, or 32 uses.
However, two seconds of spray doesn’t necessarily cover your whole body, so you probably need to use a lot more. As you can see, it’s not so clear-cut. Bottom-line, cream-based sunscreens may come off cheaper on store shelves, but the price you pay when you buy doesn’t translate into cost per application, or total cost for overall protection.
Creams Offer More Solid Protection Because You Can Actually Measure It
The benefits of sunscreen are based on its Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, a measure of sunscreen efficacy. The Australian Cancer Council recommends using SPF30 or above, which means that it’d take 30 times longer than normal for someone to sunburn. Many people go “SPF 50 or nothing”, but in reality there’s little additional benefit beyond SPF 30. Here’s a breakdown of the protection that SPF 15 and beyond offers:
SPF 15 will allow 7% of UVB radiation through to the skin
SPF 30 will allow 4% of UVB radiation through to the skin
SPF 60 will allow 2% of UVB radiation through to the skin
To be clear, whether you actually get the SPF on the container depends on whether you actually apply the recommended amount (since that’s what laboratory testing is based off of). Most of us don’t, so if you’re wearing only half the recommended amount of SPF 30, you’re getting the protection of SPF 15. At least with creams and lotions, you have an easier time eyeballing a full shot glass’ worth, but it’s nearly impossible to tell with sprays. In fact, the general guideline is to just spray until there’s an even sheen on your skin.
Essentially, it boils down to how long you’re applying with spray versus how much with creams, in order to ensure you’re getting the SPF on the label. In their experiment, Future Derm notes:
If you apply a spray sunscreen for 2-3 seconds, you only apply about 0.5 milligrams per centimeter of skin, according to our in-house testing… That means you get about one-quarter the protection you need to obtain the level of protection indicated by the SPF rating on the bottle. If you are applying a product with an SPF rating of 45, you would be getting SPF 10-12 protection. Not cool.
The longer you spray, the more protection you’d get — but again, you just can’t be as sure of whether you’ve sprayed on enough, whereas with creams you know you’ve used a hefty gob of it. And remember, you should be reapplying every two hours, or after swimming and sweating, so that also throws cost comparisons in a funk.
Ultimately, we wear sunscreen because we want to be protected from the sun’s UVs, so this “uncertainty” with sprays, along with the warning that you shouldn’t spray your face, makes it trail behind creams in terms of effectiveness.
The Better One Is the One You’ll Use (Consistently)
In a perfect world, we’d all use the perfect amount of sunscreen, reapply as necessary, always remember to use it in the first place, and never fight about which type is better. But hey, we don’t.
While we learned that, on average, we get less actual sunscreen out of a spray because of how we tend to use it, the fact that people are more willing to use a spray sunscreen because it’s more convenient is definitely a big deal. As this study in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology points out, “intermittent” sunscreen use, like if you use sunscreen three out of four days, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. The authors, and most dermatologists, recommend daily, habitual use if you’re going to be out in the sun. So, no matter what you choose, choose the one you’ll use every day, without fail. For most people, that might mean spray. For me, I’ll stick with my cream sunscreens because I’ve made it a habit to put it on every day.
And if you can handle it, why not both? You can use cream to kick off the day’s protection, which can be doubled up as a moisturizer, and then use spray to quickly re-apply, especially to your back and other hard to reach parts. Win-win.