The Right Way to Use Spray Sunscreen

Applying it is not as simple as you think, but our tips can keep you from getting burned

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Applying spray sunscreen GettyImages-490558303

If you prefer spray sunscreens, you’re not alone. Their popularity is on the rise, with sales inching nearer to top-selling lotions, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. As the study authors note, people like the quick and easy application that sprays provide. “They tend to be lighter, too, so you don’t feel all matted down,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

It’s not difficult to find high-performing spray sunscreens either. In our tests, we found many that got high ratings for ultraviolet (UV) A protection and SPF, and three of them cost $1 or less per ounce.

More on Sun Safety

But even the best sunscreen won’t protect you if you don’t use it properly, and sprays are trickier to use than lotions. Sprays may even pose a health hazard for some users. These concerns might explain why spray sunscreens haven’t been universally accepted by dermatologists, with only 69 percent of 540 surveyed saying they recommend sprays to their patients, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

So to make sure you’re safe in the sun, check out these tips before hitting the spritz.

Skip sprays for kids. Sprays can be dangerous if you accidentally breathe them in. “Some sunscreen ingredients can be lung irritants, and some sprays contain titanium dioxide,” explains Don Huber, director of product safety at Consumer Reports. That ingredient, when inhaled in large amounts, has been linked to cancer in rodent studies.

Because children are more likely to squirm when they’re being sprayed, allowing the spray to inadvertently go toward their face and be inhaled, CR recommends that caregivers avoid using spray sunscreens on them unless no other product is available. And if you have to use a spray, spray the product into your hands and rub it onto the child’s skin.

Keep spray away from your face. To avoid inhaling potentially dangerous ingredients, adults shouldn’t spray their face. Instead, spray sunscreen on your hands and rub it on, making sure to avoid your eyes and mouth.

Hold the nozzle close to your skin and spray generously. It takes about an ounce of sunscreen to fully cover an adult’s body. But with a spray it’s hard to see how much you’re applying, creating the possibility that you’ll use too little and miss spots. A good rule of thumb is to spray until your skin glistens.

Rub it in thoroughly. Even if the sunscreen is labeled “no rub,” you should still smooth it into your skin for at least 10 seconds to get an even layer of coverage, says Gohara. “Otherwise, you’ll inevitably miss spots.”

Avoid sprays on windy days. “On windy days, you may be protecting the air more than your skin,” Gohara says. Strong gusts can make it more difficult to apply spray sunscreen and easier to accidentally inhale it. If no other sunscreen is available, spray it into your hands before rubbing it on your body.

Don’t use sprays if you’re going to be near an open flame. Sprays might (literally) burn you: The Food and Drug Administration reported incidents in which people wearing spray sunscreen near a flame (such as a grill) suffered significant burns that required medical treatment. The culprit: the alcohol in spray sunscreen, which is flammable.

Disregard the advice that it’s safe to be around a flame if your spray sunscreen is thoroughly rubbed in and dry. “Even if skin feels dry, the FDA advises that the wearer of any flammable sunscreen avoid open flames or any material that can throw sparks,” Huber says. Burns have the potential to be more severe on children than on adults, which is yet another reason CR advises not to use spray sunscreens on kids.

Sunscreen Protection

Do sunscreens really protect as much as their manufacturers claim they do? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Sue Booth, a Consumer Reports' expert, breaks down what you need to know to keep you safe from the sun's harmful rays.

Karyn Repinski

Karyn Repinski is an award-winning freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., she has covered health, beauty, and nutrition for the past 25 years and has held senior positions at several national magazines.