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Sunscreen or Moisturizer First? A Derm Tells You Exactly How to Use SPF

Photo by JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

One universal skincare truth exists: SPF should be worn by everyone, every day, everywhere. But it’s a subject that can be filled with mystery. What’s the best sunscreen for my skin type? Do I apply SPF before or after moisturizer? Do I need to wear sunscreen indoors? We get it, and these are all good questions to ask—and finding the answers brings you way closer to becoming the dewiest, glowiest version of yourself. Since sunscreen is such an essential part of your skincare regimen, and when applying it, one of the most important things to understand is the importance of order. We promise this isn’t some existential chicken-or-egg-first question, because there definitely is an answer—but it isn’t exactly straightforward. With the help of board-certified dermatologist Mamina Turegano, MD, we’ve detailed everything you need to know about when to slather on your sunscreen.

About the Expert:

Mamina Turegano, MD is triple-board-certified dermatologist, internist, & dermatopathologist based in New Orleans.

Can I mix my moisturizer and sunscreen together?

In short—no. “There can be properties in the moisturizer that could inactivate ingredients in the sunscreen,” warns Dr. Turegano. To mitigate potential sun damage, she recommends taking things one step at a time by letting a product sit and absorb before moving onto the next.

But to get the full picture, you’ll need to understand the types of sunscreens and how they function. SPF is divided into two camps, physical and chemical, and works two different ways: Like a sponge or like a shield. Physical sunscreens—also called mineral sunscreens or sunblock—contain minerals (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) that create a barrier on your skin to block out harmful rays. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain active ingredients like avobenzone to absorb the sun's rays and release it in the form of heat. When you mix your SPF with another medium like moisturizer, you run the risk of diluting your sunscreen’s effectiveness or canceling it out altogether. While it might seem like an easy DIY hack at the moment, we promise it’s not worth the possible repercussions.

What about a moisturizer with SPF?

A double-duty product seems like a no-brainer—moisturizing your skin while you protect against sun exposure? Yes, please. But chances are that SPF 15 lotion isn’t doing much. “As long as it’s SPF 30 or higher and has broad spectrum coverage, it is safe,” says Dr. Turegano. By opting for a moisturizer with SPF, you get the best of both worlds—skin-loving ingredients and protection from UV rays.

But wait, why SPF 30 and broad spectrum? Let’s break it down a little more: SPF, which stands for “sun protection factor,” refers to the amount of time you have before those UVB rays start to do some damage—like sunburns, redness, and skin cancer formation. As far as the number goes, the derm-recommended minimum is 30. “SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks about 98 percent of the rays. So we’re happy if you can use at least an SPF 30,” Dr. Turegano tells us. The term “broad spectrum” means that the sun protection also spans UVA rays—which are the culprits of premature aging, wrinkles, and (of course) skin cancer formation. So as long as you see the words “SPF 30” and “broad spectrum,” you’re generally golden.

If you’re looking for a new go-to, DRUNK ELEPHANT Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense SPF 30 and TULA SKINCARE Protect + Glow Daily Sunscreen SPF 30 Gel hit all the sweet spots.

It’s also important to note that skin needs fluctuate with seasons, hormones, age, and plenty of other environmental factors. You may have dry skin during winter, or more sensitive skin in spring. Which means it’s likely that you’re going to want different moisturizers at different times, and finding one with both adequate sun protection and hydration might prove to be tricky. The solution? Learning the sunscreen order of operations—don’t worry, we swear it won’t give you algebra flashbacks.

So, which should you apply first–sunscreen or moisturizer?

That question depends on which type of sunscreen you’re wearing. “If you’re using a chemical sunscreen, it should be applied before the moisturizer, since the sunscreen needs to get absorbed into the skin,” says Dr. Turegano. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, should be applied after your morning skincare products, but before makeup. (Right now we’re loving SUPERGOOP! Mineral Sheerscreen SPF 30.) So, here’s the derm-approved equation: Chemical sunscreen is applied before moisturizer, while physical sunscreen should be the last step of your skincare routine.

Still confused how your morning routine should look? Start from your lightest to heaviest products: cleanser first, followed by toner or essence, then antioxidant serums such as vitamin C (which should be given time to absorb), and then, depending on your sunscreen type, either moisturizer or sunscreen (or vice versa).

SPF Tips to Know

Before you head off to reshuffle your routine, there are a few tips to maximize your protection. “Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your ears, neck, upper chest, and the tops of your hands (in your daily routine),” advises Dr. Turegano. She also emphasizes the importance of reapplication for both types of sunscreens, but understands the realities involved—aka a healthy dollop of cream-based SPF could spell disaster for your carefully blended highlight. “This can be difficult to do if you’re wearing makeup, so I recommend using something like a powder sunscreen with a brush in this instance,” she says. Need a rec? Check out SWEAT COSMETICS Translucent Powder Broad Spectrum SPF 30.

Did you know that if you’re wearing waterproof sunscreen, you have to put it on at least 10-15 minutes before you go in the water to help it absorb? Find out more sun care facts in this video with esthetician Gina Marie.

For more sunscreen and skincare personalized just for your skin type, get your Ipsy Glam Bag! Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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Article Last Updated September 29, 2021 12:00 AM