Dermatologists Explain Why Moisturizers With SPF Are Much Less Effective Than Pure Sunscreen

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Maybe it’s the time-saving thrill of combining two steps into one; maybe it’s feeling good that you actually remembered to apply sunscreen. Whatever the motivator, moisturizers spiked with SPF have been a staple in many of our routines for quite a while. But with summer peeking through, we asked top dermatologists a question that’s been weighing on us: is the SPF in our moisturizer enough? 

“When applying moisturizer with sunscreen instead of just sunscreen, most people will apply too thin a layer for it to be effective enough to protect against the sun’s harmful rays,” says Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew J. Elias. “There are actually studies in Europe supporting the fact that users don't apply nearly enough sunscreen to their skin—to their face, in particular—when they use moisturizer with sunscreen as opposed to sunscreen alone.”

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However, no matter how much is applied, the majority of skin care and makeup with SPF will usually only boast a small SPF, such as 15 or 20.

“An SPF of 15 is not adequate for great sun protection, but these small amounts are what help keep moisturizers lighter and less opaque,” says Chantilly, VA dermatologist Brenda Dintiman, MD. Pittsburgh dermatologist Dr. Ashley Kittridge agrees, explaining that she always emphasizes to her patients that lotions containing SPF often contain too low of an SPF—she says it’s usually less than 20—and do not provide the same coverage. “I never recommend less than SPF 30, and always recommend that patients use a sunblock and avoid lotions with SPF,” she adds. “Pretty much everyone applies a much smaller volume of sunscreen than was used in the studies on SPF efficacy/testing, so they are not getting the full protection out of the SPF on the label.” Another troublesome factor: “Most of the ‘daily moisturizers with SPF’ contain the chemical sunscreen avobenzone, which is degraded within two hours of use and is no longer effective,” says Blacksburg, VA dermatologist Dr. Aleksandra Brown.

The main underlying problem, as Upland, CA dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD explains, is that moisturizers and cosmetics aren’t under as strict of regulation from the FDA compared to products marketed as true sunscreens. “A cosmetic with a sunscreen in it doesn’t have to abide by the same stringent rules, so the active ingredient that provides SPF may not protect you as well, or provide broad-spectrum coverage like true sunscreens are required to,” she explains. The solution? Being aware as to what sunscreen ingredient provides the proper UV protection. “Oxybenzone, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are examples that provide good broad-spectrum coverage,” adds Dr. Lee. Harrison, NY dermatologist Jennifer Silverman Kitchin also stays away from combination moisturizer/sunscreen products for this reason. “It’s critical to know that you’re getting the best possible coverage when using a sunblock,” she says. “Your skin is worth it!”

However, there are dermatologists who do recommend these products—sometimes. Germantown, TN dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD says a moisturizer with an SPF of 30 or above is what she recommends for her patients who work indoors. “If they’re planning on being outside, they should wear a sunblock—no sprays—and reapply every two hours,” she adds. Selbyville, DE dermatologist Sara Moghaddam, MD agrees, noting that moisturizers with SPF are good for basic daily protection, “but would not be sufficient if you will be sweating or wet.” Scottsdale, AZ dermatologist Dr. Mariel Bird says these products are great for simplifying our skin-care routines, but the trick is applying enough. “You have to apply enough of the product to get the SPF level that’s printed on the label,” she explains. “For the face and neck, that means two to three ‘fingertip units.’” (To your knuckle!)

Greenwich, RI dermatologist Caroline Chang, MD says she’s a fan of these moisturizer-SPF combinations because they’re simply more efficient. “These products are great because they multitask and often include some tint to even out skin tone—and they usually include anti-aging ingredients, too!” Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Igor Chaplik says these products (with SPF 30 or higher) are “adequate for brief sun exposure, such as going to work, to the store, checking the mail or walking the dog, and should sit next to your toothpaste as a reminder to use every single day, no matter what.” However, he does note that for extended periods of sun exposure (lasting more than 20 minutes), a mineral-based sunblock with SPF 30 or higher should be applied.