Mist or Miss? The lowdown on the safety of spray-on sunscreen

Since SPF is one of the basic tenets of skincare, it’s no surprise that sunscreen is available in a LOT of forms. In the sea of creams, lotions, serums, sticks, and gels, spray-on aerosol sunscreens have become a popular choice. And the appeal is understandable: it’s lightweight on the skin, spill-proof, and easy to use. BUT is it all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s discuss possible issues with aerosol sunscreens, and what we can do to fix them.

Issue: The effect of aerosol on product safety

The combination of the tin packaging, aerosol, and spray mechanism makes it possible for the sunscreen to be released as a fine mist. Though modern aerosols are now mostly free of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), other propellants like butane can be flammable. In fact, several Banana Boat spray sunscreen products were recalled a few years back in North America. At least five people in the United States and Canada caught FIRE (!!!) after using the brand’s spray sunscreens. Apparently, the product can catch fire when exposed to heat not only during application, but until the sunscreen dries up completely on the skin.

The fix: Always store sunscreen products away from direct sunlight and open fires. Apply spray-on sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure (or as directed on product label).

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Issue: Possibility of inhalation and ingestion

Another complication of that super fine aerosol mist is the possibility of product inhalation. As it turns out, components of aerosol sunscreens can pose serious health risks when inhaled. Propellants like butane have been known to cause lung problems. Even several skin-caring ingredients can be lung irritants. A popular sunscreen ingredient, titanium dioxide, has even been linked to cancer in rodent studies when inhaled in large amounts! Since most spray-on sunscreens contain alcohol, contact with eyes will definitely be a problem.

The fix: Be mindful of your surroundings when applying spray-on sunscreens. Do not use it around children. Cover your eyes, nose, and mouth when applying near your face. Even if the product label recommends it, do not spray directly on your face; instead spray on your palms and then apply the sunscreen on your face.

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Issue: How much is enough?

In lab tests, 2.0 mg/cm2 is applied to test the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of sunscreen products. It therefore follows that we have to apply at least that amount to benefit from the SPF stated on the product label. Using this standard, it’s possible to compute the unique amount each individual needs for their face and body. In fact, skin care blogger and entrepreneur Nicki of FutureDerm.com did just that in a blog post which I find equal parts amazing and nosebleed-inducing (warning: you’ll need to math). It’s doable for sunscreens in cream, lotion, gel, and serum form, but what about spray-on sunscreens? Since these are applied directly to the skin, it’s impossible to measure just how much product you’re applying, let alone if you’ve applied enough to cover all the surfaces of your skin.

Unfortunately, there’s no fix as of writing; just best effort. Spray the sunscreen as close to the skin as possible, based on the recommended usage on the label. Some spray-on sunscreens would recommend spraying until the skin becomes shiny, and then massaging it into the skin for better absorption. Doing this kind of defeats the point of using a lightweight sunscreen, though. Another alternative is layering. Wait for the first coat to dry, then spray on a second layer for added protection.

The bottom line?

When it comes to convenience, spray-on sunscreens are definitely the winner. They’re easy to apply and feels comfortable on the skin. However, these aerosol products have to be stored and applied properly to avoid physical harm to self and others. It’s also impossible to check whether or not you’ve applied enough product on the skin to achieve the SPF needed to shield your skin from skin-damaging UV rays.

For me, spray-on sunscreens are a convenient choice, but only for on-the-go reapplication. Sunscreen top-ups are mess-free and just plain easy. I’d still stick to “traditional” gel or cream sunscreens for reliable sun protection though. I’m happy to report that I’ve found quite a few lightweight options in gel and serum forms. I’m a never-say-never kinda gal though, and remain open to the possibility of using spray-on sunscreens as my main sun protection. Who knows, tomorrow an app that can detect skin SPF levels just might be released! Or a new ingredient that provides broad-spectrum protection from UV rays can provide complete protection with just one spritz. But for now, I see it as a handy backup source of SPF.

What about you, what do you think? Do you feel that the pros of using spray-on sunscreen products outweigh the cons? Which ones have you tried and liked?