This Summer, Skip the Spray-On Sunscreen

CC BY 2.0. Brett Jordan

The Environmental Working Group offers up an annual guide to sunscreens, which not only helps people identify products that have harmful ingredients, but also takes aim at marketing gimmicks. This year’s assessment found that 80 percent of sunscreens evaluated are either ineffective or potentially harmful.

Spray sunscreens have gained popularity because they promise a quick application and more convenience for hard-to-reach parts of your back. But they raise a number of concerns. The Food and Drug Administration started a safety review of this type of sunscreen in 2011, but still hasn’t drawn any conclusions—but other consumer advocate groups have.

First, there’s the big question of whether or not sprays are as effective as creams. Although manufacturers must prove SPF values before they put them on products labels, there’s evidence to suggest that hasty real-world applications of spray sunscreens don’t protect as much as they promise. One small preliminary study from 2009 suggests that spray is less effective at blocking harmful UVA and UVB rays. A larger study from last year found that people using sprays applied less sunscreen than people using creams.

Then, there’s the issue of potentially harmful ingredients. The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, which can behave like estrogen in the body, and retinyl palmitate, which may speed the development of skin tumors when exposed to sun.

These ingredients can be found in sprays and lotions alike, but pose a greater threat in sprays because there’s the potential to inhale these chemicals. The Environmental Working Group does not recommend sprays for this reason, particularly for use on children whose lungs are more sensitive and vulnerable to damage. Consumer Reports similarly recommends avoiding spraying sunscreens on children.

And lastly, like anything else in an aerosol can, spray sunscreen is potentially flammable. Although problems are rare, in 2012 the FDA received five separate reports of people catching on fire after spraying sunscreen and then getting too close to an open flame, such as a campfire or barbecue grill.

Yet one in four of the sunscreens analyzed by the Environmental Working Group come as a spray-on application. Below is their “Hall of Shame” list of the 11 worst sprays, which combine questionable ingredients and sky-high SPFs, which give users a false sense of security when the benefits of SPF generally top-out at 50.

"Hall of Shame"

  1. 1. Banana Boat Clear UltraMist Ultra Defense MAX Skin Protect Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 110 2. Coppertone Sport High Performance AccuSpray Sunscreen, SPF 70 3. Coppertone Sport High Performance Clear Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100+ 4. CVS Clear Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100 5. CVS Sheer Mist Spray Sunscreen, SPF 70 6. CVS Sport Clear Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100+ 7. CVS Wet & Dry Sunscreen Spray, SPF 85 8. Neutrogena Fresh Cooling Sunscreen Body Mist, SPF 70 9. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+ 10. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70 11. Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunscreen Spray, SPF 85+

If you’re in a situation where spray-on sunscreen is your only option, most dermatologists and environmental groups still say it’s better than no sunscreen. To avoid the issues associated with inhalation, spray the sunscreen into your hand and then apply it to your face and neck. To make sure you’ve fully protected your skin, consider applying the spray twice. And to avoid catching on fire, make sure the spray has dried before going near anything burning.

But if you’re out for shopping sun protection, reach for a lotion sunblock instead.