Aerosol Sunscreen Safety

Whether you’ve smelt the pungent chemicals first-hand in an overcrowded beach bathroom, or you’ve just caught wind of the rumors surrounding spray sunscreen, the dangers of aerosol spray are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. It might seem counter-intuitive; if you’re applying spray sunscreen to protect your skin, how can it simultaneously be dangerous?

Spoiler alert: any skincare product used incorrectly poses a risk to both your personal health and that of the environment, but the dangers of spray sunscreen, in particular, are especially threatening. It’s easy to misuse aerosol sunscreen and your chances of picking up a product loaded with hazardous chemicals are pretty high.

Here’s everything you need to know to about aerosol sunscreen dangers—including how to avoid them—so you can (safely!) protect yourself from the harmful effects of the sun. Have a specific question in mind? Jump to a link below to get quick answers about sunscreen spray safety.

What Are Aerosol Sunscreens?

    An aerosol sunscreen, also known as a spray sunscreen, is one you spray on your body. It uses a propellant, specifically a pressurized gas, to push the sunscreen out.

    While a spray-on sunscreen will effectively protect your skin from the ultraviolet rays of the sun, it doesn't only reach your skin, it also emits that product into the air.

    Are Spray-On Sunscreens Safe?

    The FDA hasn’t officially ruled out whether or not spray sunscreen is dangerous, but while we wait for the verdict, Consumer Report (CR) suggests holding off on using it until we know more—especially with children. More specifically, CR recommends parents not use aerosol sunscreen on their children because inhaling the ingredients could cause lung irritation and bring on asthma attacks.

    Little girl coughing into her hand.

    Aerosol sunscreens are popular for their “no-mess” application, allowing you to say goodbye to greasy, slimy hands in favor of a lightweight mist sprayed onto your skin. However, there are a number of risks associated with this modern convenience. Some of the top potential spray sunscreen dangers include:

    • Spraying an aerosol formula in the air means you might accidentally inhale sunscreen.
    • Aerosol sunscreen cans are flammable, which is all the more dangerous in hot conditions.
    • Hazardous chemicals in spray sunscreen pose biological and environmental dangers.
    • Sunscreen effectiveness is usually less potent in spray form, meaning you’re more susceptible to damage from harmful UV rays.

    You can read about a few of these risks briefly mentioned on the warning label on the back of the aerosol can, but generally speaking, most of the public is uninformed about how they might be hurting themselves (and others) when they lay their finger down on the spray button and send chemicals spewing into the air.

    Let’s dig a little deeper into the various dangers posed by spray sunscreen, so you know exactly what you’re getting into the next time you choose a hands-free application in favor of a traditional lotion.

    What Does the FDA Say About Spray Sunscreen?

    The FDA has issued warnings against spray sunscreens—especially for use on children—so you’re better off avoiding them altogether. Inhaling aerosol ingredients, compromising coverage, making your skin flammable, absorbing toxic ingredients, or releasing them into the environment should not be risks you’re willing to take in the name of a fast, hands-free application.

    If you choose to still use spray sunscreen, never apply it to your face. For a more convenient way to reapply facial sunscreen throughout the day, look no further than the Colorescience Brush-On SPF Shield. It’s all-mineral and all-powerful, so you can keep your glowing complexion without compromising on safe ingredients.

    Is Aerosol Spray Bad for the Environment?

    The chemical ingredients in conventional sunscreen can be damaging to not only yourself but also the environment. Harsh, active ingredients commonly found in big-name sunscreens—such as avobenzone, homosalate, and most importantly, oxybenzone—are absorbed into our skin, swept into our bloodstream, found present in urine within 15 minutes, and passed onto children through breast milk.

    These toxic chemicals are hormone disruptors and potent allergens, plus they can form free radicals when they react with the sun. When such chemicals make their way into the environment via airborne aerosol sprays or by washing off our skin and into the water, they’ve been shown to kill coral reefs* and disturb ecosystems so dramatically that Hawaii has even passed legislation banning these ingredients.

    Toxic ingredients in chemical sunscreen can be found in both spray and lotion formulas, so be sure to always double-check the product label before purchasing. Opt for healthier mineral vs chemical sunscreen to protect your health and environment while also defending against intense sun rays.

    Aerosol sunscreen spray being applied to a child's arm

    Does Aerosol Sunscreen Work?

    Yes, spray sunscreen can effectively protect against the sun’s harmful UV, rays… but at what cost? Aerosol sprays are on the rise in popularity, despite the risk of inhaling harmful, airborne chemicals, polluting the environment, and increasing your vulnerability to skin cancer.

    If this trend continues, it’ll become doubly imperative that consumers know how to properly apply spray sunscreen to avoid consequences ranging from accidental inhalation to severe second-degree burns—because even the safest mineral sunscreens will be rendered ineffective if used incorrectly.

    Applying spray sunscreen might not be as simple or convenient as you think. To avoid health hazards, use sunscreen with safe ingredients, and if you must use spray sunscreen, keep these application tips in mind:

    • Keep spray sunscreen away from your face to avoid inhaling potentially dangerous ingredients. Instead, hold the nozzle close to your hands and spray generously, then use your fingers to apply the product to your face. (Remember to thoroughly wash your hands afterward, though!)
    • Skip the spray sunscreen for kids, especially when there are plenty of options for safe sunscreen for kids out there. Even if you diligently avoid their face, we all know that kids can get a bit squirmy—especially when they’re trying to get away from the smelly sunscreen and splash straight into the pool. For that reason, CR recommends avoiding the risk of aerosol inhalation by applying spray sunscreen onto your hands and rubbing it onto their skin.
    • Thoroughly rub it in. Don’t be fooled by the “hands-free” label; without rubbing the formula into your skin for at least 10 seconds, you’ll undoubtedly miss spots with an uneven, patchy coverage that’s destined to leave blotchy burns. It looks like spray sunscreens aren’t entirely mess-free, after all…
    • Avoid spray sunscreen on windy days. If you’ve attempted to use aerosol sunscreen on a breezy beach day, chances are you’ve watched your product blow straight into the wind—not landing anywhere near your body. Wind interference will make your product harder to apply and easier to inhale, so if you have no other back up UV protection, spray the sunscreen onto your hands and apply it with your fingers on windy days.

    How Much Aerosol Sunscreen Should You Use?

    With skin cancer awareness becoming more and more important, consumers are concerned about how much spray sunscreen they need to apply in order to protect their skin from damaging UV rays. The question is a worthwhile one, considering any aerosol sunscreen lost in the wind will negatively impact your sunscreen effectiveness.

    Generally speaking, the American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends that adults apply at least one ounce of sunscreen during every application, or enough to fill a shot glass (for all you frugal folks out there, that means a typical spray bottle has only 6 adult applications).

    Compared to measuring traditional lotions, an ounce of aerosol spray can be difficult to estimate, so it’s suggested to apply enough spray until your skin has a visible sheen to it. If you’re using a mineral sunscreen for your face or body with active ingredients such as zinc dioxide, it’ll be easier to see the formula on your skin. Otherwise, make sure to thoroughly coat yourself for maximum sunscreen effectiveness, in addition to following these standard guidelines:

    • Wear a sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB (broad spectrum) protection.
    • Wear a sunscreen with a minimum of Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30.
    • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure to allow time for it to fully sink into your skin.
    • Reapply sunscreen every 90 minutes to 2 hours, or possibly sooner depending on conditions and activity. For example, if you’re sweating you should reapply more often and consider using a sport stick sunscreen. Even if you're just lounging by a pool, you should reapply regularly, and use a water-resistant sunscreen if you go in the water.

    If you don’t apply enough sunscreen, you’ll be vulnerable to aerosol sunburns and the damaging effects of free radicals—so be sure to lay it on thick.

    Types of sunscreens that are safe to use

    Why Do I Need to Spray Sunscreen On Outside?

    Your routine before you go outside may be to apply a generous coating of sunscreen, which is beneficial. However, make sunscreen spray safety a priority and wait to apply it until you're outside. This type of sunscreen releases tiny particles into the air that reach deep into your lung tissue. They're toxic, so they can cause permanent damage.

    While the titanium dioxide that's found in some sunscreens is safe for your skin, it's not safe to inhale in large quantities frequently. It has a potential carcinogenic effect. And, when you’re reapplying multiple times a day, every day, that adds up.

    When you spray the sunscreen outside, the particles disperse more. As a result, you inhale less sunscreen.

    What Happens When You Breathe in Too Much Sunscreen?

    In terms of short-term effects, the ingredients in some sunscreens are lung irritants. You may notice you feel short of breath. It's possible you'll start coughing to force the irritant out of your respiratory tract.

    On the other hand, breathing in too much spray sunscreen on a regular basis can have long-term consequences. The two components that are a major concern are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, both of which may be cancer-causing agents when inhaled.

    However, it’s important to note that these ingredients are okay to apply to the skin externally, so you don’t need to worry about your other sunscreen formulas that use these minerals.

    What Are the Safest Sunscreens?

    Although you may want the convenience of aerosol because it's less messy and quick to apply, it's not safe to inhale, and you risk not covering your skin evenly and completely. Instead of sunscreen sprays, consider these other sunscreen options that are safer and more effective.

    Mineral Powder Sunscreen

    Colorescience powders, for instance, are mineral sunscreens. Mineral powder sunscreens are brushed on, so there isn't much being inhaled, unlike spray-on sunscreen, which emits a large number of particles. This sunscreen formula consists of natural minerals that are safe for your skin.

    Woman using mineral powder sunscreen with safe brushed on application

    Colorescience mineral powder sunscreens are also water resistant for up to 80 minutes, have an SPF of 50, and are simple to apply. Try our Sunforgettable® Total Protection™ Brush-On Shield SPF 50 for an easy-to-apply powder sunscreen that looks flawless over makeup.

    Balm Sunscreen

    A balm is thicker than a lotion, but it's not quite solid. And unlike with aerosol sunscreen, you don't need to spray anything; it's applied directly to the skin. They are also typically highly nourishing for the skin.

    Colorescience's antioxidant-rich stick sunscreen formula is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. To apply, you just rub it on using the applicator. It's basically like putting on deodorant. With this design, you don't have to touch the solution during the application process, so there's no mess. Plus, it’s easy to use on the go and is safe for people of all ages.

    Lotion Sunscreen

    You rub lotion sunscreen onto your skin. You don't have to worry about the sunscreen spray safety tips because it doesn't emit any particles into the air. It also allows you to apply an even coat and ensure you reach every area more accurately than a spray. The skin on your face is especially delicate and highly exposed, so full coverage is essential.

    The Sunforgettable® Total Protection™ Face Shield Flex SPF 50 is an excellent mineral-based option if you're looking for a lotion sunscreen solution.

    You can also find sunscreen kits that provide a variety of high-quality, safe sunscreen products that aren't sunscreen sprays. Fortunately, with Colorescience products, none are spray sunscreens. And you may find a variety of products to meet your needs, including ones for total skin protection.

    Which Is Better, Aerosol Sunscreen, or Lotion Sunscreen?

    Lotion sunscreen is easier to apply since it’s able to reach deeply into crooks and crevices, so you can worry less about missing the backs of your ears or tops of your feet. Traditional lotions have higher sunscreen effectiveness (sprays are notoriously misapplied and consistently pegged for having lower SPFs than advertised), plus they’re much safer than aerosols because they won’t make you catch on fire.

    Woman in a yellow bathing suit and sun hat sitting on the shore applying sunscreen lotion.

    Yep, you read that right. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised that people shouldn't apply spray-on sunscreen while near a source of flame. Spray sunscreen flammability is no joke; it even says so on the warning label. Although some people might know not to spray an aerosol can near a flame, most people don’t know that their spray sunscreen is flammable even after it’s been applied. The 2013 CR updates reports:

    “These incidents suggest that there is a possibility of catching fire if you are near an open flame or a spark after spraying on a flammable sunscreen—even if you believe you have waited a sufficient time for the sunscreen to dry and your skin feels dry.”

    If you wear spray sunscreen and walk too close to a barbeque or citronella candle, for example, your skin can catch fire and result in an incredibly painful aerosol burn. The reason why is that most spray sunscreens contain the highly-flammable ingredients such as alcohol, propane, or butane. These are readily available, cost much less to formulate, and last longer, but are significantly poorer in quality.

    How to Find a Safe Sunscreen Option

    Due to the dangers of some sunscreens—even though they may protect you from the sun—it's important to choose carefully. Here are some tips for choosing a safe and effective sunscreen replacement:

    • Look for one that doesn't contain any chemical ingredients.
    • Check to see the SPF rating and aim for one that's at least 30.
    • It helps to choose one that's easy to apply, so you're more likely to use it every time you go into the sun.

    Fortunately, Colorescience mineral sunscreens meet all those criteria.

    Taking Care of Your Skin

    Although you may have a moisturizing and cleansing routine to help your skin remain healthy and youthful, sunscreen needs to be a priority. While sunscreen spray safety can reduce the risks associated with spray-on sunscreen, it's best to opt for another option, such as Colorescience mineral sunscreen. Fortunately, it’s available in a variety of easy-to-apply formulas that can easily be swapped for aerosol sunscreen.

    If you want to stay protected from the sun safely, check out Colorescience's mineral sunscreen selection.

    *Reef safe as defined by Hawaii’s legislation related to the ban of SPF sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.