Cosmetics with SPF: Are They Enough?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant


Coating exposed skin with sunscreen before a day at the beach is part of skincare for many people. But routine sun exposure adds up to cumulative skin damage over time. Many brands of make-up and skin care products boast that they contain sun protection factor (SPF) ingredients as anti-aging properties.

Is that enough to safeguard your skin against damaging rays in day-to-day use? For many women, probably not.

Brett Shulman, dermatologist with Rochester Regional Health Center for Dermatology in Rochester, said that the SPF listed on products is based upon application that’s “roughly double what most people put on their skin — .5 to 1 gram per square centimeter, compared with the recommended 2 grams,” he said.

He advises women to apply a combination sunscreen and moisturizer with SPF before applying cosmetics with SPF.

“I like the layering approach,” Shulman said. “It’s like a belt and suspenders to keep pants up. You get a lot more protection and increasing the film of sunscreen.”

Sara Drew, board-certified adult nurse practitioner with Geneva General Dermatology Associates in Geneva, said patients ask a lot about the effectiveness of cosmetics with SPF. Though these can help, she said, “It’s even more important to have something on underneath.”

Most make-up with SPF rates at least 15 SPF, though 30 is better, she said. SPF measures the protection that a sunscreen provides against the sun.

Sunscreen products often bear expiration dates because their active ingredients can lose effectiveness over time. Most last about three years, but if products change in color, scent or consistency, throw them out and buy new ones.

Many products contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, both of which physically block UVA and UVB rays that cause aging and skin cancer. These become active upon application. Chemical sunscreens must be applied 15 minutes before sun exposure. The term “broad spectrum” indicates the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Drew“Many of these are hypoallergenic since they contain physical blockers,” Drew said.

She recommends brands Elta MD, Color Science, and, for children, Blue Lizard.

One issue for women is that after applying a sunscreen base and then SPF cosmetics, they should re-apply a sunscreen product after two hours.

“None of this is all-day,” Drew said.

Few women who took the time to apply and blend make-up want to pile on a greasy, white layer of sunscreen before heading out for a walk during their lunch break. Since some translucent powders offer SPF 30, Drew suggested using one as a touch-up to avoid piling on more sunscreen.

“It takes a few seconds and it won’t affect your make-up,” she said.

After two hours, women with oily skin likely need a touch-up anyway.

Sweating, swimming and towel drying the skin all reduce the amount of time that sunscreen provides protection.

Drew recommends washing off all facial products before bedtime as part of a skincare regimen.

In general, seeking shade whenever possible, using the car visor, and wearing SPF protective clothing, sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats can also provide physical barriers to sun exposure.