Powdered Sunscreen: What Is It, and How Does It Work?
Sunscreen has been around for almost 100 years, so it’s about time things got interesting. For better or worse, the past few years have seen innovative sun-protection techniques hit the market — some we love, like SPF for the scalp, and some that worry the Food and Drug Administration, like alleged “sunscreen pills.”
One seemingly new-school invention is powdered sunscreen, like Paula’s Choice On-the-Go Shielding Powder SPF 30, Colorescience’s Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50, and the Brush On Block Translucent Mineral Powder Sunscreen. But does a powder provide the same protection as slathering on your favorite lotion sunscreen? We asked the experts how we should be working this new option into our skin-care routines.
What is powdered sunscreen?
I’ve always pictured the inventor of sunscreen products to be a scientist with a great spray tan and huge sunglasses, working in a lab situated directly on the equator. But according to cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko, powdered sunscreen is far from a new development. In fact, the active ingredients in all sunscreens already exist in powder form. “Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide used as sunscreens are already provided as powders or powders dispersed in liquids,” says Ko.
Cream and spray sunscreens are formulated as liquid to “ensure maximum dispersion of the titanium dioxide and provide an even coating of sunscreen agents on the skin,” Ko says. There’s no “special formulation” that turns sun-protective ingredients into powders because they exist that way in the first place. Ingredient-wise, you’re getting the same goods in a tin of powder that you are in a spray can.
How should you apply powdered sunscreen?
The “shot glass rule,” for the unfamiliar, is a layman’s way of making sure that you wear the proper amount of sunscreen. The rule states that it takes about a shot glass full of cream or lotion sunscreen to adequately cover the body.
But the same rule doesn’t apply to powdered sunscreen. Ko’s blog has a helpful visual representation of how much powder it takes to achieve the SPF protection claimed on the label. If your powdered sunscreen is labeled SPF 25, but you only blot on a swipe of powder, you’re likely not getting the full power of the sun-blocking ingredients.
“It amounts to quite a large amount of powder, which most people may not have an easy time applying,” says Ko. He points out that Colorescience recommends “two passes” when applying its powdered sunscreen.
When should you use powdered sunscreen?
“In theory, powdered sunscreens would be great if thoroughly applied to the entire face in a thicker coat,” says Anna Guanche, a California-based board-certified dermatologist. But since no one has the time (or money) to apply half a jar of powder to their faces halfway through a beach day, she recommends saving SPF powder for touch-ups.
“Apply a mixed chemical and physical sunscreen to the skin first thing in the A.M.,” says Guanche, “then touch up with the powder sunscreen throughout the day on the most sunburn-prone areas: midface, nasal bridge, and upper forehead.”
Shari Marchbein, board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Health, agrees that powder is great, as long as you’re not just using powder. “They are ideal for reapplication over makeup, but I would caution against [using powder] as a primary method of sun protection, as the amount applied is likely insufficient to properly protect the skin,” she says.
These dermatologists do not suggest ditching powdered sunscreen altogether — after all, everyone can use more sun protection. Just be sure that you’re adding it to an existing base of sunscreen-coated skin, instead of using powder as the only barrier between yourself and UV rays.
OK, I have all my sunscreen on. What now?
This wouldn’t be an article about sunscreen if we didn’t remind you that sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect yourself from all the skin-damaging effects of UV rays. “Remember to also wear hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing, including long sleeve shirts, to remain properly protected,” says Marchbein. That’s after you coat your face and body in cream or lotion SPF — and then blot away any summer sweat with an extra swipe of sunscreen powder.
Check out a few of our favorite powdered sunscreens:
Tarteguard Mineral Powder Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30 (Shop Now)
Eminence Organic Skin Care Sun Defense Minerals SPF 30 (Shop Now
Ilia Flow-Thru Radiant Translucent Powder SPF 20 (Shop Now)
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 (Shop Now)
Brush On Block Translucent Mineral Powder Sunscreen (Shop Now)
Paula’s Choice On-the-Go Shielding Powder SPF 30 (Shop Now)
ISDIN Fotoprotector Mineral SunBrush (Shop Now)
Supergoop 100% Mineral Invincible Setting Powder (Shop Now)
More on sun protection:
Now, see how sun care has evolved within the last 100 years: