Which Type of Sunscreen Should I Use? A Guide

Affiliate Disclosure: I receive a small commission for purchases made via affiliate links.

This post is sponsored by Neutrogena.

There are many different types of sunscreen: light lotions, thick creams, sprays, sticks, powders, foams. I often get asked which one is the best and, unfortunately, the answer is that it depends. (Yeah, I know I say that a lot – things generally aren’t black and white!).

The best sunscreen is always one that you’ll use. But each sunscreen format has its advantages and disadvantages, which makes them better for particular situations – so here’s a guide to the different formats and their benefits.

This post is sponsored by Neutrogena who have a massive sunscreen range, so I thought I’d use their products as examples to illustrate some of the typical features of each type.

(I’m not going to go into the different sunscreen actives here – I’ve talked about Chemical vs Physical Sunscreens in this post, which also comes in video form, and there’s a summary of the individual filters in the free sample chapter of The Lab Muffin Guide to Basic Skincare.)

Do I Need Sunscreen?

According to a recent Harris poll from Neutrogena, nearly 40% of Americans admit that they’re so focused on handwashing and avoiding germs that they aren’t thinking about sunscreen.

In general, it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen if you’re going outside, particularly if it’s a day where the UV level is high. Unfortunately you can’t always tell the UV level from the amount of sun there is – clouds don’t block much UV. The best way to tell is to check the UV Index for your location from a weather site. This number tells you the level of erythemal (sunburn-causing) UV, and breaks it down into levels: 1-2 is low, 3-5 is moderate, 6-7 is high, 8-10 is very high and 11+ is extreme.

UV levels have been increasing in many places over the last couple of decades. In Seattle, for example, the number of days where the UV Index was higher than 8 (very high UV) rose from 4 days in 1997 to a whopping 44 days in 2007 and 68 days in 2017!

US UV Index Map
Temporal Increase in the Number of Annual Days With a Very High UV Index Across the U.S., Menas Kizoulis, Josh Williams, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc.

Lotions

Most sunscreens are emulsions that contain oil and water blended together. These can come in lots of different textures – creams, lotions, fluids – and since it’s all a spectrum and there aren’t strict lines defining which is which, I’m going to call all sunscreens that come out of a bottle or tube “lotions” here.

Emulsion structure
Emulsion structure

Facial lotions

Most face sunscreens, particularly the ones that work well with makeup, are lightweight lotions.

These are formulated to have a particularly unnoticeable feel on skin, so they’re very comfortable to wear every day. Unfortunately this means that they’re usually not water-resistant, so they’re not as suitable for exercising and beach days (where you’ll probably rub and sweat off the sunscreen). But they’ll protect your skin on your commute and on days where you’re in and out of the car doing errands – and look good under your makeup.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer

Best for

  • Comfortable daily use
  • Wearing under makeup (many of them work well as primers!)

Things to look out for

  • Most face sunscreens (especially the lighter lotions) aren’t water resistant, so they won’t be suitable if you’re sweating. Sweating can also cause sunscreen to drip into your eyes which can sting (this can still happen with water-resistant sunscreens, but it isn’t as bad). Neutrogena have a couple of face sunscreens like the Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch and Hydro Boost sunscreens that are pretty lightweight, while still being water resistant.
  • A thicker texture usually means the sunscreen will be more moisturising, and they’ll often be sold as “creams”.
  • Thinner sunscreens more suitable for oily skin are called “fluids”, and sometimes require thorough shaking before application as the ingredients can settle.
  • A full face application is around a 1/4 of a teaspoon. With neck and ears included, it’s around 1/2 of a teaspoon.

Body lotions

Your body moves around and brushes against things a lot more than your face, so it’s better to use a more substantive (long-wearing) product that will last through rubbing. Here’s where a water-resistant sunscreen really comes in handy – in general, these are also more rub-resistant as well. Body sunscreens are usually also more economical and come in larger containers than face sunscreens.

Useful for

  • Covering large areas of your body
  • Outdoor activity

Things to look out for

  • Water-resistant sunscreen is recommended if you’re swimming or exercising. Reapplying every 2 hours is still important!
  • A full body application is more than 30 g – that’s around a shot glass of sunscreen.
  • Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the tops of your feet.
  • Clothing may not give much protection from UV if it’s thin or a loose weave, so you’ll want to wear sunscreen underneath it.

Sprays

Spray sunscreens are incredibly convenient. They’re quick to apply and their texture is thin, which means they absorb quickly and rub in easily. They come in both aerosol and pump form, and can be designed for face or body use. Spray sunscreens are often transparent, which is handy if you have a lot of body hair or a beard – it means you don’t need to rub as much to make it blend in. (Some sunscreens in other formats are also transparent, but they’re a lot less common!)

Sprays are also a good way of topping up sunscreen application quickly during the day.

Useful for

  • Hard-to-reach places
  • Quickly applying sunscreen
  • Application over makeup
  • Reapplying sunscreen throughout the day
  • Reapplying when your hands are dirty
  • Protecting your scalp
  • Applying sunscreen quickly on children

Things to look out for

  • It’s easy to underapply spray sunscreens. The volume required is still the same as for a lotion. I recommend testing how many pumps or how long you need to hold the spray to get a teaspoon of product, and calculating accordingly. It’s also recommended that you spray until the skin is shiny.
  • Applying a few layers of a high SPF spray (let it dry in between layers) is a good way of getting extra protection. I’ve been spraying layers of Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Mist over makeup to get more protection without having my foundation run.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Mist

  • For aerosol sunscreens with propellant, make sure you apply even more – in consumer advocate tests it was found that only 40-60% of the sprayed product was sunscreen, with the rest being propellant.
  • Be careful not to inhale spray sunscreen. It’s safest to spray it close to your skin, then rub it in. If you’re applying it to your face, it’s best to spray it onto your hands and then apply it to your face. If you want to use it over makeup, you can hold your breath, apply, then walk a few steps before breathing again.
  • Be careful when applying sprays outdoors so the wind doesn’t blow it into your eyes, or everywhere but your skin.

Sticks

Sunscreen sticks are a newer format for me. I never really understood why they existed until I saw a study that found that the area around the eyes and eyelids was the most commonly missed spot when applying face sunscreen – I definitely underapply here! It’s a lot easier to aim the sunscreen stick around your eyes than trying to apply a runny lotion, especially if you’re in a rush. A lot of sunscreens also sting the eyes, but sticks tend to be more water resistant and will run into eyes a lot less. The fact they’re so easy to carry around and apply means you’re more likely to reapply too!

Useful for

  • Long-wear protection
  • Portable and won’t leak
  • Reapplying when your hands are dirty
  • Precise protection around the eye area
  • Minimising eye irritation

Things to look out for

  • You can miss spots if you apply the stick quickly over a bumpy area. You can avoid this by rubbing the product around afterwards to spread it out and get even coverage.
  • Running the stick over your skin once probably won’t give a lot of protection – go over the skin a few times.

I’ve been using Neutrogena’s Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Stick which glides on smoothly, doesn’t sting the eyes, and works surprisingly well as an eyeshadow base.

Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Stick

Less common sunscreen formats

Foams (mousses)

These are easy to apply and rub in quickly (particularly good for applying on wriggly kids), but it can be difficult to judge how much you’re applying relative to a lotion.

Powder

As I said in my sunscreen and makeup video, I don’t think these give any significant amount of protection based on how much powder can stick to your skin. I’m skeptical that they’d even give any significant top-up protection.

Oils

These are runny products that are usually intended for all-over protection at the beach. The main advantage is that they’re super moisturising, and they’re a good substitute for people who would otherwise use a tanning oil without UV protection.

Which formats of sunscreen do you use? 

This post is sponsored by Neutrogena; however, the content is all based on my independent research and my honest experience. For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

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24 thoughts on “Which Type of Sunscreen Should I Use? A Guide”

  1. But Michelle, since you are partnering with Neutrogena… I don’t understand why you didn’t ask them about the stability of avobenzone in their sunscreens and if they can provide data showing how stable their avobenzone is using their proprietary stabilization technology which I believe is called Helioplex? If I’m gonna use a sunscreen that relies on just avobenzone for it’s UVA protection, I wanna see data that gives me confidence that the avobenzone will actually be stable and protect me, especially in the absence of a PA rating or EU UVA seal… Even when it’s labeled broad spectrum, I like to see the company talk about avobenzone’s stability to give us consumers more confidence since most of us are concerned with UVA protection.

    Would be great if you asked them and then updated the post or made a new post on the subject…

    Reply
  2. You are absolutely right that Powder is absolutely useless for both a top up and main sunscreen method, this woman applied powder susncreen in the amount you would typically apply under a UV camera and it showed absolutely no coverage that I can see, sure she did it outside where it was a bit windy but still! it just shows me that powder sunscreens are not reliable at all, not even to top up your sunscreen!

    Here’s the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrs3_F5uzJI

    Reply
  3. Sadly since Neutrogena and Johnson & Johnson are American companies they don’t use newer modern UV filters outside the US where they are permitted 🙁 But hopefully their avobenzone is super stable, I mean I heard that La Roche Posay’s Cell-Ox shield technology and Neutrogena’s Helioplex are pretty much the best and the gold standard for stabilizing avobenzone. Both L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson have developed several ways to stabilize avobenzone but the thing is… i have not seen the data to support this… It’s just heresay and rumours until I see the data as far as I’m concerned.

    I suspect that Neutrogena uses other technologies in addition to Helioplex to stabilize avobenzone, but again, if their avobenzone is really stable, you’d think they would brag about it’s stability… Not saying that it’s not true… Just that I want to see the data if you get what I mean… Esepcially since they are not using better newer UV filters for markets outside the US.

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  4. Very informative post! Thanks for the explanations. I like Neutrogena as a brand, their oil free moisturizer for sensitive skin is pretty good. Not to stir up a hornets nest, lol, but I’m one of those unfortunate 5% who are allergic to fragrance. I’m currently using the Hadarabo UV white gel (SPF50), mostly because it works well under my makeup. I hope those ingredients are approved in the US soon, so companies like Neutrogena can take advantage of them.

    Reply
    • Okay, I did a search and found the Healthy Defense SPF 50. I’ll try that one! I’d love to be able to buy sunscreen at the store, and not Amazon.

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  5. Ultra sheer dry touch irritates my face. Has someone else experienced the same. What Sun screendid you use after that?
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge Michelle and congratulations on the sponsorship ??

    Reply
  6. Sticks are a life-saver for putting sunscreen on kids’ faces and not worrying about it rinsing into their eyes 5 minutes later. We never not have a sunscreen stick around (here in UV index-11 Austin TX).

    Reply
      • Michelle,

        I respect you and your work on this blog, but I really don’t think that defending chemical sunscreens is the sword you need to fall on. At some point in history, the “experts” also believed cigarette smoking was OK until they didn’t. We have evidence that chemical sunscreen actives seep into the plasma/bloodstream with a single use. These actives are not native to the human body. We know many skincare addicts absolutely bathe in sunscreen day in and day out for years on end and we have yet to see the studies showing what the cumulative effects of that is.

        So, between choosing ingredients that sit on my skin versus the ones that seep into my bloodstream, I will always choose the former. I don’t care if the studies haven’t yet caught up with the facts. I need absolute proof that bio cumulative effects are safe before changing my mind. You however, have taken the approach that the FDA doesn’t yet have the proof to tell people otherwise. Those studies can be decades away, if ever. I understand this is a sponsored by Neutrogena and you will not want to post comments hurting their business. So be it.

        Reply
        • I wrote those posts well before I had any sort of partnership with Neutrogena, so your implications about my scientific integrity are baseless.

          It’s also misleading to compare the state of science now, in terms of the understanding of low concentrations of chemicals in the bloodstream and the toxicological implications of hormone mimics, to the state of science in the 1950s. If you read my two articles, you’d see that there isn’t a need to focus on the FDA’s stance – the safety assessments from the EU and Australia, and other countries, have existed long before the new FDA studies. In science there’s no such thing as “proof” – you have evidence pointing towards a likely outcome, and the EU safety assessments (which you can read online, they’re very detailed) which take into account absorption have found that the amounts used in the EU (very similar to the amounts in the US) are safe, with a large margin of error.

          And simply because there isn’t direct evidence (the closest thing to “proof”, I guess) doesn’t mean something isn’t known with a good degree of certainty – the sun might not rise tomorrow, but extrapolating from the evidence we have, it almost definitely will.

          I’m also not sure what “facts” you have outside of scientific studies – how can the studies be behind the facts when the facts come from studies?

          Reply
        • Mainstream science and medicine ‘experts’ never maintained that cigarettes were safe, yet this gets hauled out whenever someone disagrees with something that science says today. Science can be wrong and it has been in the past, but it doesn’t happen all that often and it didn’t happen where cigarette smoking was concerned.

          Reply
          • I suggest you revisit the history of it then.

            Through the 1920s and 1930s, the medical debate was about cigarettes being damaging for only some people, much like we discuss fragrance in skin care being OK for most but irritating to some.

            The conversation later morphed to how much damage cigarettes do, with tobacco companies enlisting the help of doctors in their advertising to outdo one another based on how little irritation their brand of cigarettes cause versus those of the competition. One can easily accuse the medical community of aiding and abetting these advertising campaigns. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s when lung cancer cases started spiking that doctors took notice but still did not conclude a link to smoking until the 1960s, well after the damage was done for most people. The evidence was there for decades, but no one bothered to look or draw the correct conclusions until the results were undeniable.

  7. I use the EVY mousse sunscreen. From what I know it seems the most reliable against rubbing and sweating off. I also think the mousse texture is entertaining. I am very sensitive against sunscreen stinging my eyes, but I find that if I powder generously around the eyes it helps a lot!

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  8. Not the right topic, but could you talk about epidermal growth factors? Particularly the one from Skinactives where you can mix it into a water based moisturizer.

    Reply
  9. I use sticks when I go hiking or rowing. It’s easy to keep one in my pocket and just rub it all over my face as many times as I’d like. It gets me to reapply more frequently than I probably would otherwise so it’s quite handy that way.

    Reply
  10. Michelle-thanks again for the helpful info! I was wondering – I came across the ingredient “Polysorbate 20” in one of my products – is this a PEG or otherwise an ingredient i should avoid if I’m trying to keep my routine clean? thanks and love your site!

    Reply

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