This is not the way to apply sunscreen.
Photo: Joe Robbins (Getty)

I love sunscreen. I wear it everyday—even in the winter, even when it’s overcast. Applying sunscreen regularly is one of the few things you can do to directly prevent cancer (skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US). It’s also the best anti-aging product you can use. Do you know why older skin gets dull, wrinkled, and spotted? It’s because of years of exposure to the sun.

But there is one sunscreen I do not love: spray sunscreen. Spray sunscreen takes everything that is good and holy about sunscreen and destroys it. Lotion sunscreen gives you a small element of control and security in this chaotic world; spray sunscreen merely introduces more chaos.

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Let’s start with the reason most people claim to like spray sunscreen: It’s more convenient. Is it, though? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the only way to get proper coverage when using a spray sunscreen is to spray your skin until it looks very wet, then rub the product in with your hands. And you’re never supposed to spray it directly toward your face or head—the instructions on the bottle say to spray it into your hands, and then apply to face. How is any of this more convenient than simply squeezing some lotion into your hands, or directly onto an arm or leg, and rubbing that in? Either way, your hands are getting sticky.

Further, when you use spray sunscreen, at least half of the product is being lost to the wind. You know it’s true.

People have a lot of complaints about sunscreen: “It’s greasy. It’s stings my eyes. It stains my clothes. It smells weird.” Does spray sunscreen truly solve any of these problems? Does pressurizing the product and blasting it as a fine aerosol toward your most sensitive mucus membranes really improve the situation?

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Perhaps the most serious concern about spray sunscreen is its safety. Health officials are reasonably confident that most of the sunscreen chemicals approved for use in the US are safe to rub on our skin. However, not much research has been done on whether those same chemicals—along with the propellants and other fillers added to the products—are safe to inhale. The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to review the safety of spray sunscreens, but it has yet to complete its work. Consumer Reports, which tests popular sunscreens every year, recommends against using spray sunscreen on children due to the risk of inhalation.

Indeed, the American Academy of Dermatology says to “avoid inhaling spray sunscreen.” But how exactly can you avoid inhaling something that you are spraying in a huge cloud over your entire body? And what about the people around you? How long can you hold your breath?

Oh yeah, and spray sunscreen is freaking flammable. Personally, I would rather just get a sunburn than literally be on fire.

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I spoke with California-based dermatologist Ivy Lee, who told me she shares my disdain for spray sunscreen. She said that so many people use all sunscreens improperly (by not applying enough, not rubbing it in, and not reapplying frequently) that her clients often get sunburned even through they used sunscreen. And that’s even more common for the spray-on variety.

“Do I prefer sunscreen spray over nothing? Yes, I do,” said Lee. “But there are so many options that are available to us—there are much safer options than using sunscreen sprays.”

Lee’s favorite sunscreens are the mineral-based kind, which use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to stop UV rays from causing free-radical damage in the skin (as opposed to the so-called chemical sunscreens, which in the US mostly include avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone). Mineral sunscreens generally won’t sting eyes or irritate sensitive skin—and they rarely come in spray-on form. But Lee acknowledged that some people just really want to use spray sunscreen, and she has some advice for them.

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“The only times when I really talk about spray sunscreens is if people are really excited and adamant about the convenience,” she said. “I tell them to put on a good even base layer of cream or lotion sunscreen, and then use spray to reapply. If the alternative is not reapplying, that’s when I’m okay with sunscreen sprays.”

Many dermatologists say, “the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use every day,” and Lee agrees. Spray-on products are certainly better than nothing for people who otherwise refuse to use sunscreen, or for people who have a physical limitation that makes spray sunscreen the only practical option.

I know there are parents out there who say the only way to get any sunscreen at all on their squirmy children is to use a spray. But Lee has a tip for you, too! She recommends using sunscreen sticks and teaching children to apply their own sunscreen by using the sticks to draw geometric shapes on their skin and then rubbing it in. Sunscreen sticks are also less likely to run into the eyes, because they have a thicker consistency.

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“With kids, the sticks are very helpful in terms of building that self-efficacy, building a sunscreen habit,” Lee said. “Have the kids be active participants in their sun safety. It’s also something that’s easy to take with them in their backpacks, or to camp.”

But Lee, like all dermatologists, recommends doing more than just applying sunscreen to avoid sunburns, wrinkles, and skin cancer. Wear hats and other protective clothing, and seek shade when you can. And the sunscreen you do use should be labeled “broad spectrum” and be at least an SPF 30.

Okay, surely you now agree with me that spray sunscreen is the worst. But you’re still unhappy about having sticky, greasy sunscreen hands while trying to enjoy a day outdoors. I have the solution: wet wipes! Rub yourself down with sunscreen lotion—and note that you need a half-teaspoon of product for the face and neck and a full shot-glass worth of product for the whole body—and then use a wet wipe to clean off your hands. (But not the backs of your hands—they need sunscreen, too.) Brilliant, right?

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Happy fourth of July.

Update: Added additional information to emphasize that spray sunscreen is better than no sunscreen at all.