Will Moisturizers With SPF Protect Your Skin?

    What they can—and can't—do

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    person in the sun GettyImages-538040240

    If your morning beauty routine involves applying both sunscreen and moisturizer, you may have decided to simplify things by using a moisturizer with SPF instead.

    That’s a fine move, assuming you apply enough of it. But a new study published in the journal Plos One suggests you may not be.

    It turns out that when the study's participants used the moisturizer, they were more likely to miss areas around the eyes—a common site for skin cancer—than when they used the sunscreen.

    More On Sun Safety

    “This finding was a surprise,” says the study's author, Austin McCormick, M.D., a consultant ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon at Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, England. “We thought that the perception of moisturizer would be that it might sting less,” so people wouldn’t be afraid to apply it closer to their eyes.

    If you apply it right, though, does moisturizer make a suitable substitute for sunscreen? And what about other products, such as foundation, lipstick, and other makeup items, that now come formulated with SPF?

    Dermatologists urge you to think twice before dropping sunscreen in favor of these products.

    How SPF Moisturizer Stacks Up Against Sunscreen

    Many so-called daily moisturizers are only SPF 15, and the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. “Moisturizer with SPF 15 adds some protection, but I don’t think it’s enough,” says Doris Day, M.D., a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center.

    McCormick’s study shows it’s important to cover as much of your face as possible whether you’re using sunscreen or moisturizer. If you don’t, even an SPF 30 might not give you adequate protection. According to Day, you need to apply at least one-quarter teaspoon.

    Carefully work the moisturizer into the areas around your eyes. In McCormick’s study, the eyelids and the inside corners of the eyes where the eyelids and nose meet were often missed spots. Still, it’s clearly not possible to cover every bit of this vulnerable area with either moisturizer or sunscreen; you don’t want to get it in your eyes accidentally.

    That’s where other measures, such as wearing sunglasses and a hat, come in handy. Sunglasses with a label of 100 percent protection against UVA and UVB rays (or that say “UV 400,” which means the same thing) are your best bet. A wide-brimmed hat can also help block the sun from hitting the unprotected skin right around your eyes.

    Foundation Isn't Enough

    “Makeup with SPF is never a proper substitute for sunscreen,” says Jeanine Downie, M.D., a dermatologist and an assistant attending physician at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, N.J., and Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J. The biggest problem with using foundation with SPF (and hoping it will protect your skin) is that it’s nearly impossible to use enough to get effective coverage without looking like you’ve applied a makeup mask.

    “People don't apply foundation evenly, they don’t apply it everywhere, and they don’t apply enough for it to be adequate protection on its own,” says Downie. The same is true for tinted moisturizer, and BB and CC creams with SPF, says Downie. They need to be used with a separate sunscreen (applied all over your face, including your neck, chest, and ears if they will be exposed) or you risk being underprotected.

    It’s also worth noting that SPF isn't cumulative. “Layering an SPF 15 foundation over an SPF 15 moisturizer does not add up to SPF 30 protection,” says Day. “To make an SPF 30 formulation, the concentration of active ingredients is different than in an SPF 15.”

    Lip Service

    The lips are a prime place for skin cancers to develop, in part because they're exposed to the sun year-round and because even people who are diligent about applying sunscreen often overlook their lips.

    “Lipstick and lip balm can be helpful to protect lips as long as they have an SPF of 30 or above,” says Downie. “And to be effective, they must also be reapplied throughout the day.” While this is true of all sunscreens, the lips may need even more frequent reapplication because anything you put on wears off easily.

    Regular lipstick without SPF may provide a small amount of physical protection if it’s a dark shade and a matte formulation, says Day, “but not enough to rely on it.”

    But beware of products that contain no SPF—especially those that are glossy. “Lip gloss without SPF can actually be worse than putting nothing on your lips,” says Day. “Like spreading baby oil on your skin, the gloss can intensify the sun and increase your risk of burning.”

    Do I Apply Sunscreen With Makeup On?

    In order to remain effective, sunscreen needs to be reapplied every 2 hours. “You can’t put it on at 7 in the morning and think you’re covered for the day,” says Macrene Alexiades, M.D., Ph.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine. “Even if you’re just sitting in your office all morning, it’s inactivated in a couple of hours, so if you go out at lunchtime, you need to reapply it.”

    But because no one wants to remove makeup and start over from the sunscreen on up before heading out to lunch, dermatologists have a few suggestions for staying protected during any incidental sun exposure midday:

    • Keep a wide-brimmed hat at your desk and put it on before you go outside. An umbrella or parasol can also work—with the bonus of covering even more of you than a hat.

    • Stay on the shady side of streets and underneath protective awnings whenever possible.

    • Try brushing on a liberal coat of powder sunscreen. It can be applied over your makeup and will help boost your protection.

    Check out a few of our top-rated sunscreens, which you can put on under your makeup.

    Catherine Roberts contributed additional reporting to this article.

    Sally Wadyka

    Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.