Lotion, Spray, Powder, Stick, Gel: Which Sunscreen Is Right for You?
Dermatologists and skin-care chemists weigh in on which SPF format is best for your lifestyle.
Sunscreen isn't just a summer staple — it's a year-round must-have.
"It's important to wear sunscreen regularly," says Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. "Much of the sun exposure and sun damage that we get is from daily incidental exposure, not just from days at the beach."
Not wearing sunscreen puts you at risk for UV-related skin cancers and premature visible skin aging, she continues. And slathering it on your face alone isn't enough. You also need to pay close attention to often overlooked areas that get UV exposure, like the scalp, lips, ears, neck, and hands, which are common areas where skin cancer develops, per Mayo Clinic.
The good news is that there are a bevy of different sunscreen formulations on the market, including lotions, sprays, sticks, powders, gels and makeup-SPF hybrids. No matter which format you choose, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends selecting a water-resistant option with broad-spectrum protection and an SPF of at least 30.
Ahead, we break down the most popular forms of sunscreen, touching on their pros and cons to help you determine which is best for you.
Sunscreen Creams and Lotions
When you think of sunscreen, a traditional pasty white cream or lotion might come to mind. But these formulas have undergone a serious upgrade over the years. Now there are plenty of top-rated options for face and body, many of which are lightweight, good for all skin tones, and suitable for every budget.
What are cream and lotion sunscreens, exactly? A quick chemistry lesson: They're emulsions of oil and water, says Gloria Lu, a chemist who runs Chemist Confessions, a skin-care science blog, with her friend and fellow chemist Victoria Fu. Emulsions have an easy-to-spread texture that makes it less likely you'll miss spots during application. For context, an adequate amount is 2 milligrams (mg) per square centimeter, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (That translates to about 1 ounce [oz] of sunscreen, or a full shot glass, per the AAD.) Applying — and reapplying — this quantity will ensure you reap the sun protection factor (SPF) shown on the sunscreen bottle.
The cons of creams and lotions? They're more challenging to use on the scalp, and makeup wearers may find them hard to reapply, says Dr. King. Some formulas can also clog pores when used on the face; be sure to look for the word "noncomedogenic" (meaning it won’t clog pores) on the bottle before you add it to your shopping cart.
Spray sunscreens are a well-known alternative to lotions and creams for those who prefer a lighter-weight texture. Popular options in this category include aerosols, continuous spray nonaerosols, and pump tops, with options for the face and body.
But one of the most common mistakes people make with an aerosol spray is not rubbing it in, since many spray bottles don’t instruct users to do so. Don’t just spray and go, advises the AAD — rather, rub your spray sunscreen into your skin to ensure even coverage.
Another drawback, outlined in a Griffith University Study published in November 2021, is that applying spray sunscreen in windy conditions results in a significant loss of sunscreen. Researchers found that four of the five sunscreen products tested would need more than one bottle to provide enough full-body coverage in 20 kph (12 mph) wind conditions. (The solution: Consider applying your sunscreen indoors to ensure you’re not wasting product. Then, wait the AAD-recommended 15 minutes before heading to your outdoor plans.)
Aerosol spray sunscreens may also contain ingredients (like ethyl chloride, propellants, and di- and tri-chlorofluoromethane) that can irritate sensitive skin, says Christina Chung, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Unfortunately, “there is no specific ingredient that consumers with sensitive skin should look for in a spray sunscreen,” she says. “Generally speaking, aloe, chamomile, and antioxidants can be soothing and have anti-inflammatory properties, but even they are not the holy grail for sensitive skin.” She recommends opting for a mineral sunscreen, which is less likely to irritate the skin than a chemical sunscreen — but, she adds, the process of finding a spray sunscreen that suits your skin “may take a little trial and error.”
And finally, don't spray directly onto your face, to avoid inhaling your SPF. Instead, spray your sunscreen of choice onto your hands and then rub it on your face.
Multipurpose sunscreen sticks are another popular option for the face and lips, one that Lu and Fu say has improved greatly texture-wise over the years. "When we first started as chemists, stick textures were very off-putting," says Lu. Years ago, they were sticky and heavy, and something you'd likely dread applying to your face. But fast-forward to today, and there are a plethora of choices on the market catering to the hands, lips, ears, and nose. Plus, thanks to their mess-free packaging, this form of sunscreen is ultra-portable and handy for travel.
Sunscreen sticks usually contain oil, no water, and a high wax content that gives them that solid shape, says Lu. While old-fashioned sticks get a bad reputation for clogging pores, there are many new noncomedogenic formulations on the market these days. They’re frequently used to protect the under-eye area, but they’re suitable for use all over your face.
One important thing to keep in mind, per Lu, is that it's easy to underapply when it comes to stick formulations. The key to protecting yourself, per the AAD: Pass the sunscreen stick four times back and forth over the area you’re covering. Then, rub the sunscreen in to ensure an even layer of coverage.
Powder sunscreens are a portable, convenient option for reapplying sunscreen to the face and scalp. Their formulas contain the mineral sunscreens titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in powder form, say Fu and Lu. This makes them a smart reapplication choice for those with sensitive skin and makeup wearers who diligently reapply every two hours, as recommended by the AAD. Many of them even double as makeup setting powders that reduce shine.
Powder sunscreen is a game changer for reapplication to the face and scalp. But in Dr. Chung’s words, it’s a "second line of defense" — and not an ideal option for a base layer, because a significant amount of powder is required to achieve full SPF protection, and most people only apply a light layer. In other words, it's good for reapplication, but you should still use a nickel-size dollop of lotion on your face at the start of the day, as the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends.
Similar to sunscreen sprays and unlike creams and lotions, one of the drawbacks with sunscreen powder is that you don’t have full control over the coverage area, and, as touched on above, it’s difficult to quantify how much you’ve applied to your skin to achieve the SPF factor on the bottle. Plus, it’s a costly and time-consuming option if you’re planning to apply it to your body.
True gel (or water-based) sunscreen formulas aren't as widely available in the United States as traditional lotions, but there's certainly a demand for them in the ever-evolving SPF space. "We tend to see more water-based gels from Asia because they have access to different filters [the ingredients that protect the skin from UVA/UVB rays] that American formulas don't," says Lu and Fu. "But in the States, all sun filters are essentially oil-based." In other words, most sunscreens marketed as "gel formulas" are actually "light emulsions that give the illusion of a gel, but are still more lotiony in texture."
There's an easy way to determine what the texture of a sunscreen touted as a "gel" will feel like in real life: If you scan the ingredient list and don't see water, it's likely oil-based. That means you'll get a more nourishing, richer texture, rather than a refreshing, water-like feel.
As for their efficacy, Fu and Lu say they function similarly to lotion and cream formulas, and should be applied the same way: by rubbing a generous amount into the skin.
Another popular option is makeup-sunscreen hybrids. Examples include tinted moisturizer, foundation, primer, and BB (beauty balm) and CC (color correcting) creams. This is a compelling option for beauty enthusiasts, but they’re similar to powders and sprays in that it’s important to ensure you’re applying an adequate amount.
“People tend to apply a much thinner layer than [these products are] tested for, in terms of SPF value,” says Fu. If you intend to use it as your base layer, Lu says to ensure “you’re applying a ‘sunscreen’ amount, not a ‘foundation’ amount.”
A word of advice for makeup lovers: Apply your sunscreen of choice as the final step in your skin-care routine, before you start your makeup application, advises the beauty company L’Oréal Paris. Then you can layer on additional coverage using a makeup-sunscreen hybrid, or set your finished look with a powder SPF product.
The bottom line, Chung says, is that "the best sunscreen is the sunscreen you will actually use." But applying your formula of choice — be it a lotion, cream, gel, spray, or stick formula — is the bare minimum. To get the most out of your SPF and keep your skin safe, be sure to apply it to all areas exposed to UV rays, apply an adequate amount, and reapply every two hours.