Why Makeup With SPF Is No Substitute for Sunscreen

Joanna Douglas
·Senior Editor

When it comes to your summer beauty routine, three little letters hold a lot of importance: "SPF." More than 2 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year in the United States, and if you’re going to be spending any time in the summer sun, using products that contain SPF is the best way to protect yourself. Wearing SPF can also help prevent signs of aging like wrinkles and sun spots. Though a large variety of makeup, including foundation, powder, BB cream, and tinted lip balm, now includes SPF, is a single morning application of an infused product going to give you the same benefit as using sunscreen? The answer is no.

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The issue isn't whether or not the product actually contains SPF, but rather how it's applied. "In general if the product carries an SPF number it has to be tested by the FDA, so theoretically, if the product carries an SPF 30 on it then yes, you are getting an SPF 30 as it is defined by the FDA," Dr. Ava Shamban, a dermatologist and author of "Heal Your Skin,” tells Yahoo Shine. "Since you need a large dollop of sunscreen to attain the SPF promised, you would look like a painted face at best or like you had just emerged from a mud bath at worst to guarantee the SPF on the label."

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Dr. Heidi A Waldorf, director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, agrees that most women don't get the coverage they need from SPF makeup. “The problem is when we’re applying makeup we’re not applying it to our ears, to our neck, and to our décolletage," she says. "When you’re using a bronzer with SPF, are you using it everywhere or just on your cheekbones? I don’t count that as sunblock — I think of those products as a bonus. And remember, you also have to reapply throughout the day.”

Both dermatologists advise applying sunblock to your face at least every two hours when you’re outdoors and immediately after sweating or getting wet. And if you’re relying only on that morning application of SPF makeup, that’s simply not enough coverage. “If you apply SPF foundation to the point where it’s completely opaque, then it’s great, but no one wears that,” says Waldorf.

The absolute best and safest way to protect your face is with sunscreen, and any SPF makeup should be supplemental. In both cases you should look for products labeled as offering "broad spectrum" coverage (per the new FDA monograph) that block out UVA and UVB rays. It's the UVB rays, says Shamban, that turn your skin red and affect the top layers of skin, while the UVA rays penetrate to the fat layer and are more responsible for photo damage and premature aging, though both can cause skin cancer. Both dermatologists suggest looking for the highest SPF possible in sunscreen and in makeup. “Usually you’re putting on less than you need, so SPF 30 might be somewhere between 7 and 15,” says Waldorf. "If you use enough and rub it in thoroughly, you’ll have adequate sun protection."

As for how often you should be wearing sunscreen, you need it on your face every single day, even in the winter, say both experts. For the most effective application, apply right after washing your face or taking a shower so that it can best penetrate the skin. And there's no excuse not to commit to daily sunblock these days. "There are so many products out there — creams, lotions, gels, serums — that have sun protection,” says Waldorf, who swears by Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectum SPF. “It’s easy — just one or two pumps. You can add additional moisture over it or find a daily moisturizer with added SPF from your favorite cosmetic or sunblock company so you won’t need separate products."

When you're looking for a good-quality SPF makeup to layer on top, Shamban suggests broad-spectrum formulas from bareMinerals, La Mer, and Neutrogena. Waldorf advises touching up midday with Colorscience Sunforgettable Loose Mineral Sunscreen Brush SPF 30, which you can apply over a full face of makeup. And don’t forget the lips! Waldorf likes Neutrogena lipgloss with sun protection, but even high-end brands like YSL make lipstick with SPF. That means remembering to reapply should come easily.

Sunscreen won’t lose its effectiveness when you apply makeup on top, so doubling up can be great, but slathering on various SPFs doesn't always add up to better protection. “If you layer sunscreens — for example, an SPF 15 plus an SPF 30 — it does not add up to an SPF 45. In fact, it appears that you might dilute the higher SPF with using a lower SPF on top."

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