Do cosmetics containing sunscreen provide adequate sun protection?

Dear Alice,

I was thinking of buying a face powder that says it has an spf of 30. It seems convenient to have a powder sunblock since lotions make my oily face greasy. However, I was wondering if this powder will even be effective as a sunblock since I heard that some moisturizers and other products that advertise an added SPF sometimes don't have a high enough concentration of sunblocking ingredients to make it effective. I would like to know what do you think before I make my purchase. 


Dear Reader, 

More and more cosmetics nowadays contain sunscreens with a range of sun protection factors (SPFs). SPF can now be found in some face powders, foundations, lipsticks, and specially formulated face moisturizers. Some of these moisturizers are oil-free and use non-greasy sunscreen ingredients that may not produce an oil slick on your face. However, many of these products that have SPF are below the recommended SPF 30 value. Although you mentioned that your face powder does in fact contain SPF 30, it can still be difficult to ensure you're wearing a thick enough layer to benefit from the full protection offered by the product. Not to mention, face powders don't often absorb very well into the skin, which might make it a weaker barrier since it can more easily wear off throughout the day. 

Sunscreens prevents UVB rays from reaching your skin, and the American Academy of Dermatologists recommends that people use a sunscreen of SPF 30. However, sunscreens are often dressed up in a variety of different labels that can make it hard to decipher what exactly the product is doing for you, what it's protecting you from, and how to use it. Here are a few common factors related to sunscreen  and what they mean for how effective the product is: 

  • SPF: This number represents the amount of UV radiation from the sun that it takes to make your skin red when using sunscreen as directed as compared to not using any sunscreen at all. For example, an SPF 30 provides mre sun protection than an SPF 15. Sun exposure isn’t always correlated with time since Absorption of UV rays varies from person to person often due to the melanin content in their skin. 
  • Broad spectrum: This means that the product can defend your skin from both UVB and UVA rays. While UVB can burn your skin, UVA increases aging. 
  • Sweat/Water resistance: Although the label may say the product can withstand water and sweat it’s typically only for a certain amount of time. It’s recommended that sunscreen be re-applied every 40-80 minutes especially if you're sweating a lot or swimming. 
  • UV Filters: Sunscreen can have inorganic UV filters which reflect light away from your body, or organic agents that absorb light to prevent your skin from absorbing it. 
  • Sunscreen vs Sunblock: Use of the term ‘sunblock’ has recently been restricted as no products can actually block out the sun. Sunscreen, however, filters and reflects light rays. 
  • Quantity to apply and where: To provide enough coverage, it’s a good idea to apply about one ounce across your entire body—or at least those areas that will be directly exposed to the sun and not covered by clothing—and a nickel-sized amount to your face before going out into the sun on any given day. 
  • Shelf life/expiry dates: According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sunscreens have a shelf life of up to three years, but storage conditions and temperature can affect this as well. 

Face powder sunscreens, like the one you were looking at, usually have the texture of a setting powder—or that of sifted flour—and are applied with a brush. They can have a mattifying effect, helping you to avoid that greasy feeling that you mentioned, and are convenient to apply or even re-apply over makeup. However, because the powder is loose and dry it can more easily be rubbed or blown off of the skin leaving you unprotected against the sun's rays. To better protect your skin, you might consider applying a layer of non-powder sunscreen first—think traditional gels, creams, and lotions—and allow it to absorb into the skin before applying any cosmetics or additional powdered sunscreens on top. As you go through your day, you might also choose to use the powder sunscreen as a touch-up as needed. 

You might also consider testing out different sunscreen products to see if they still give that greasy effect after applying the powder on top. Consider doing an internet search for "non-oily sunscreens" or see if your favorite brands have sunscreen that they advertise as being oil free, fast setting, or non-greasy. Before generously applying the product to your face, consider performing a patch test to see how your skin reacts. 

Take care out there, 

Last updated Jun 23, 2023
Originally published Apr 21, 2000

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