Does Makeup with SPF Really Protect from the Sun

Episode #43 / Jul 10, 2009
Over the past several years, makeup with SPF has been appearing on store shelves. But does it really offer sun protection? Dr. Schultz will explain whether or not it does and whether or not you need sunscreen as well.
Joshua Powell on July 14, 2009 at 9:02am

While a lot of the advice you give seems excellent, this applying sunscreen first (whether regular sunscreen or, as in this episode, foundation with sunscreen) goes against what almost every other dermatologist and what almost every sunscreen manufacturer says to do.

Almost always, the recommendation is to apply sunscreen as the LAST product in your skin care regimen.

Dr. Schultz, I would love to see the research and peer reviewed papers which have lead you (and you are almost alone in this) to recommend sunscreen application the way you do.

Dr. Schultz on July 14, 2009 at 9:15pm

@Joshua Powell: Thank you for your encouraging words regarding my site. In order to provide you with a quick response to the above (and so that others can learn from this as well), all of the dermatologists who I have personal and professional relationships with both in New York and across the country all recommend that sunscreen should be applied first after washing your face in order to function properly. In regards to sunscreen manufacturers suggesting you apply them last, since FDA testing to establish SPF values requires that nothing else be on the skin other than the sunscreen, I am surprised that any manufacturer would suggest to apply it last because if they are, they can't be assuring you that you're getting the protection they are claiming. In fact, I would pose the question: what is the research that has been done to demonstrate sunscreen efficacy on top of other products? Further, for an explanation as to why they need to be applied first, because "chemical" (regular) sunscreens work by actually binding to skin cells (which is why you need to apply them 30 minutes before sun exposure) and then absorbing the damaging ultraviolet sun energy, any other product applied to and coating the skin first will prevent the sunscreen from binding to the skin and therefore almost completely stop the sunscreen from working. "Chem free" (physical blocker) sunscreens work by blocking and then reflecting the damaging ultraviolet sun energy. So they can work to some extent regardless of where in the layering of products the "chem free" sunscreen is placed but if you want them to work predictably and reliably, and deliver the SPF they promise they need to be applied first so that, (1) there is an even and uniform layer on the clean skin, (2) other previously applied products don't dilute the concentration and therefore strength of the sunscreen, and (3) they can deliver the promised SPF (as previously mentioned, when they were tested for their SPF value by the FDA, they were applied first to the skin). While you will get some protection from "chem free" (physical blocker) sunscreen when applied on top of other products or by reapplying makeup containing them on top of other products or even on top of itself, the protection is not predictable and you may well wind up with areas that are damaged or burned from the sun. Thanks for your great question.

Joshua Powell on July 15, 2009 at 9:22pm

Thank you for your response Dr. Schultz.

I've spent the best part of today researching this and I'm yet to find anything conclusive, one way or the other. Can you point me to any official (perhaps on the FDA's web site) documentation which backs up your recommendations?

Assuming your recommendations are correct, what do you suggest as the correct layering procedure for someone who's using an antioxidant serum or prescription topical medication during the daytime? Surely applying these over a sunscreen (many of which are water-resistant) would greatly diminish their absorption into the skin and thus their benefits?

Sunscreens are certainly a topic that cause much confusion amongst many consumers, and as I'm the administrator for a leading dermatologists web forums and an active member in one of the internet's largest online communities devoted to skin care, I'd very much like to be able to share my findings with others in the hope of reducing some of the confusion that abounds.

Teri Stodd on July 17, 2009 at 1:05pm


I am also interested in the answer to this question. It has been my understanding that chemical sunscreens can often generate free radicals on the skin - so it is best to first layer the skin with an antioxidant prior to the application of sunscreen.

Further, I am now reading the Vitamin C may not be a good antioxidant to use in direct sunlight due to its fragile nature, so therefore something like a pomegranate seed oil or Vitamin E serum would be a better choice.

Your thoughts on these matters is greatly appreciated!

Neal Schultz, M.D. on July 17, 2009 at 3:50pm

@Joshua Powell: I've come across your forum and am happy to have you participating here. In regards to research or sentiment about the order of application of sunscreen, while you know my opinion, I'm collecting source(s) that I plan to share on this thread next week. In regards to your and @Teri Stodd's question about when to use antioxidants, this was actually the topic of my weekly tip newsletter several weeks ago, which follows: "People have asked me time and time again which they should apply first: sunscreen or antioxidants? Little do they know that it's a trick question. Antioxidants work by first being absorbed into the skin and then by consuming the destructive energy created within your skin by the sun (instead of letting that energy destroy your cell's DNA, collagen, membranes, etcetera). However, when topical antioxidants are applied during the day, they are destroyed by the sun's ultraviolet rays before they can be absorbed by your skin. Instead, when they are applied at bedtime, they have all night to be absorbed into the skin in order to be in a position to protect it. So apply sunscreen during the day and your antioxidants at bedtime." Finally, @Teri Stodd, I'll return to you with an answer to your question about antioxidants.

Teri Stodd on July 18, 2009 at 12:42am

Thank you so much, I have also left you a related question under the very recent Chem-Free sunscreens episode.


Neal Schultz, M.D. on July 23, 2009 at 2:21am

@Joshua Powell: Last week I mentioned that I was going to follow up on your question regarding the order of application skincare products, including sunscreen. So I reached out to a nationally recognized authority on skin cancer and skin cancer prevention, Perry Robins, M.D. He is the founder and president of The Skin Cancer Foundation and an educator who has devoted his professional career to educating physicians (myself included), and promoting skin cancer awareness and prevention. On another note, Perry is also the senior authority in the world on Mohs surgery (which he learned directly from Dr. Moh) for the treatment of skin cancer. Perry was unequivocal in his response that sunscreen should be applied before any other products.

I appreciate your open mindedness and efforts in being willing to look for peer review articles supporting your position or mine, but in reality, we won't find any studies, either peer reviewed or in throw away journals, concerning this subject and supporting my opinion or yours because any study in which sunscreen isn't applied directly to the skin is at variance with the FDA requirements for establishing and documenting SPF values. And while the FDA may be slow in their efforts to revise SPF ratings (to low, protective, and high which would be a great service to consumers caught up in the numbers game), they do have meaningful and enforceable clout in rejecting and disqualifying any sunscreen study in which the "methods" are at variance with their mandated testing procedures.

I am grateful to you for the opportunity to have discussed this incredibly important subject in a quasi-public forum and will always be open to any and all objective data you and your website's readers can share.

Joshua Powell on July 24, 2009 at 12:33pm

Dr. Schultz, thank you for responding.

You have said that the FDA requirements are that the sunscreen be applied to clean skin, with nothing applied before it.

Having read through this FDA document I see no guideline in the General Testing Procedures section that the sunscreen must be applied to clean, bare skin. Equally, I see no guideline that no other products can be applied on top of the sunscreen. If this is the case (and it's not just that I've missed them in the guidelines), one can assume that if the former is implied (and true), the latter must be also.

I'd like to go back to a question you posed to me in your first response, "what is the research that has been done to demonstrate sunscreen efficacy on top of other products?" and flip that around to you and ask, what research has been done to demonstrate the efficacy of sunscreen when other products are applied on top of it?

If during the testing no other products are applied on top of the sunscreen (and I can see no evidence to suggest that they are), your logic that it is safer to apply moisturisers and other products on top of the sunscreen is flawed because this hasn't been tested either.

Again, thank you for taking the time to respond.

Neal Schultz, M.D. on July 28, 2009 at 2:27am

@Joshua Powell: While I have enjoyed this conversation, my position on when to apply sunscreen (first) has not changed. After calling the FDA, the representative who I spoke with informed me that when sunscreen is tested, it is the only product tested at that time. And it is during this sunscreen-only test in which SPF is measured. By applying sunscreen first, you are, to the best of your ability considering real world circumstances, mimicking the conditions of the FDA test (i.e., by making sure it has first contact with the skin) and thus, ensuring the best chances of receiving the stated SPF and protection. In addition, chemical-based sunscreen instructions explicitly state that it should be applied 20-30 minutes prior to sun exposure. This is because it needs time to bind with the skin. Thus, I'd prefer (and suggest) to apply sunscreen first in order to give it the best chance of most effectively binding to my skin and therefore protecting it (just like the suggestion to place antioxidants on the skin first; however, as we've already discussed, this wouldn't conflict with sunscreen application because one should only be applying antioxidants at night and sunscreen, of course, during the day). Further more, if I were to have applied something else first, I would have no way of knowing what residue was left after it was rubbed into my skin (even fifteen minutes later) which might prevent the sunscreen from properly binding and providing the stated SPF. While a case could be made for applying chem-free (physical) sunscreen at any stage of a skincare regimen, I would still be extremely concerned that as a result of other products being applied below the sunscreen, you would risk an uneven application of it, and thus not receive consistent and maximum protection.

I realize that we could spend a lot more time discussing this. In fact, I'm really excited that we've created an environment in which we could. However, it is really up to the users of sunscreen to distill our comments down to their own decision. I personally would rather play it safe and apply my sunscreen first (which my medical insights and experience dictates) to get the most effective protection possible, which is precisely what I recommend that other people do (for the reasons stated in this and other comments and DermTV sunscreen videos), and with which I know that Dr. Perry Robins and most of my fellow dermatologists unequivocally agree.

Sabah Noor on August 4, 2009 at 12:16am

i heard that in order for suncreen to be effective, you have to apply it every 2 hours...
doesn't that mean that you have to reapply your makeup every 2 hours??

Joshua Powell on August 10, 2009 at 5:23pm

It certainly would Sabah!

I've actually spoken with 2 labs which do SPF testing and both said the same thing, when sunscreens are tested they are the ONLY product applied to the skin. One even went on to say that there was no way of knowing for certain whether you would get the rated SPF if you applied a product under OR over the sunscreen. He also said that applying a moisturiser OVER the sunscreen could also dilute and even remove some of the sunscreen from some areas of your skin.

It's very confusing and unfortunately that confusion isn't helped by the various camps in the profession who give conflicting information.

Interestingly enough, I have also spoken with a professor who teaches dermatology here in the UK (and has taught in the US) and he said that sunscreen should be the LAST product applied in your skin care regimen and that this is what they teach dermatologists.

All I can say to anyone reading this is read EVERYTHING you can then make your own decision.

Neal Schultz, M.D. on August 11, 2009 at 3:27am

@Sabah Noor: For the sunscreen to work effectively, it needs to go on first, before your makeup. So if you wear makeup on top of your sunscreen (which is perfectly fine), then you need to remove your makeup, reapply sunscreen, and then reapply makeup. But the two hour rule is for when your are sweating or swimming, both of which remove your makeup anyway. If you are not sweating or swimming, and are wearing makeup over your sunscreen, you get a little extra protection from your makeup and could probably stretch your reapplication time for sunscreen to four hours.

Teri Stodd on August 13, 2009 at 1:12pm

To throw a wrench into this discussion, it seems to me that the difference lies in whether you are relying on a chemical based sunscreen or a physical based sunscreen.

My understanding is that a chemical based sunscreen needs to directly interact with the skin in order to be effective.

A physical based sunscreen only needs to act as a coating, per se - analogous to wearing a raincoat in the rain.

Please correct me if I am mistaken.

Thank you.

Neal Schultz, M.D. on August 13, 2009 at 2:56pm

@Teri Stodd: It's a great question and I've actually discussed just this topic in my comment posted above on July 14, 2009 at 5:15pm. If this doesn't answer your question, can you please be more specific? Thanks!

Neal Schultz, M.D. on September 3, 2009 at 4:19pm

As the topic of when to apply sunscreen is complex, and I've noticed people discussing it not only on this forum but in other places as well, I've written a more in-depth article that discusses the intricacies of the subject. (I can only cover so much ground in a few minute video and thought an article was more appropriate for an in-depth discussion.) You can find it at:

Karen on March 19, 2010 at 1:44am

Instead of reapplying a sunscreen lotion throughout the day, would using a powder with SPF (such as Bare Escentials SPF 25 Mineral Veil) be a good option? If so, would this protect from both UVA and UVB rays, and how how much would I need to apply to get the full SPF 25?
Thank you for taking the time to answer questions! Your videos are so informative!

Bedour Marzouq on May 20, 2010 at 12:21am

due to the wonderful discussion between Dr. Schultz and Joshou, one idea came into my mind and i would like to see your opinion regarding this which is to apply the sunscreen twice, before and after using other skin products, can this be helpful??

Neal Schultz, M.D. on May 31, 2010 at 11:29pm

@Karen: In my experience, powder doesn't stay on your face when you're sweating, swimming, etc. any better than lotion, cream, etc. So regardless of what type of vehicle your SPF is in, you'll still need to reapply for intervals appropriate for your activity level (keep in mind that even if you're doing no activity, your body still sweats a little and even then requires reapplication every three to four hours). Regarding how much you'd need to put it, you should put on enough to get even coverage on your face.

Neal Schultz, M.D. on May 31, 2010 at 11:31pm

@Bedour: There would be no benefit from applying traditional carbon-based sunscreens (e.g., chemical-based) after your other products, but there might be a marginal benefit with chem-free sunscreens. Considering that it's just an extra layer on top of your other products, it might be too heavy and not really worth the effort.