Exposing Aerosol Sunscreen Effectiveness: Are You Applying Spray Sunscreen Properly?

Posted December 12, 2018

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 extra 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.

What are the Dangers of Spray Sunscreen?

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 to use aerosol sunscreen on their children because inhaling the ingredients could cause lung irritation and bring on asthma attacks.

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.

Does Spray 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 UV protectors will be rendered ineffective if used incorrectly.

Applying spray sunscreen might not be as simple or convenient as you think. To avoid health hazards, 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 using your fingers to apply the product to your face. (Remember to thoroughly wash your hands afterward, though!)
  • Skip the spray sunscreen for kids. 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 with your fingers on windy days.

How Much Spray Sunscreen to 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 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 or lounging in a pool, you should reapply more often.

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.

Which is Better: Aerosol Sunscreen vs. Lotion?

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.

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 what 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 closely 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 because 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.

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 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 sunrays.

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.

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