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Which Is Better: Tinted or Untinted SPF? Experts Explain

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This past May, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) issued a press release praising how far tinted sunscreens had evolved—specifically calling out how “new developments match a person’s skin tone without leaving a visible white film on the skin.”

“By tailoring the sunscreen formulations to an individual’s skin tone, people are more likely to protect themselves from the sun, therefore reducing their risk of skin cancer,” said dermatologist Henry W. Lim, MD, former chair of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, in the release. He also went on to recommend using a tinted sunscreen that “contains iron oxides since they increase the protection against visible light and ultraviolet A radiation.”

“Team tinted” also counts Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Fredric Haberman, and his wife, as fans. “My wife and I both use tinted SPF 40-to-50 sunscreens and I recommend it to patients who don’t like to see white sunscreen,” he says, adding that, in his opinion, there’s no real difference between tinted and untinted sunscreen—just as long as you wear it—and he looks at it as more of a personal preference. “We like tinted options, but we also suggest patients use clear sunscreens on their face.”

“Tinted sunscreen can be used as regular sunscreen,” notes Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD, but stresses that the same rules for application apply to whatever option one opts for. “It needs to be reapplied regularly, at least every two hours or if the skin gets wet. My favorites are lightweight and universal for versatile skin types, EltaMD Elements ($39)and Alastin Hydratint Pro ($60).”

West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD also says there is no real difference between the two in his eyes—and offers this potential advantage: “Depending on the brand, the tint may actually add to the chemical screens used,” he says. “Either way, the numbered SPF must, by federal law, adhere to the SPF it is rated at. The only possible disadvantage is that tinted SPFs can be a bit harder to wash off, so it’s important to be thorough when cleansing.”

The Formula of a Tint, According to a Cosmetic Chemist

While the make up is a bit different when comparing tinted versus untinted, the same sun-safety (and reapplication) rules still apply, stresses cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos, and offers these quick takeaways:

  • Tinted sunscreens contain the same iron oxide pigments used to create various shades of foundation makeup. Differences in the chemistries of iron oxides result in black, red and yellow colorants which are blended in different proportions to match skin tones. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide used as sunscreen actives are bright white pigments so the addition of iron oxides can help mitigate the white cast these ingredients leave on the skin.
  • Just like foundation with SPF, you may not be applying enough tinted sunscreen to achieve adequate protection so best to layer and use the tinted sunscreen as an adjunct to your daily moisturizer that also contains sunscreen. And I would only use powders in addition to a base layer of sunscreen, never as a primary sunscreen because it’s unlikely you’re applying a thick enough layer to achieved the labeled SPF.
  • Just like with typical sunscreens, you should read and follow the directions, including reapplication every two hours to maintain adequate protection.
  • Because tinted sunscreens contain colored pigments, they can rub off on clothing.
  • Iron oxide pigments can accelerate the breakdown of some natural oils used in lotions and creams if not stabilized properly, if your tinted SPF smells funny or has separated, toss it.

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