If you’re one of the millions of people using a daily moisturizer with sun protection factor (SPF) to shield your face from sun damage, chances are you’re not getting as much protection as you think.
While many moisturizers contain high SPF similar in strength to what you’d find in a sunscreen, they simply aren’t being applied in the same way.
“We expected the eyelid areas to be better covered by moisturizer compared to sunscreen as we thought the perception would be that moisturizers would cause less eye stinging if they accidentally seeped into the eyes. Or we expected to find no difference between the two,” said senior study author Austin McCormick, consultant ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon at Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool.
The research team studied 84 people — 22 males and 62 females from ages 18 to 57 — over the course of two visits to the lab. They were all exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
In one visit, they applied sunscreen to their faces. At the second, they applied an SPF moisturizer. After being exposed to the radiation, their pictures were taken by UV-sensitive cameras.
The results? Application to the face with moisturizer was significantly worse than with sunscreen. The research team found that 16.6 percent failed to properly cover these areas of their face with the SPF moisturizer compared to 11.1 percent with sunscreen.
The eyelid area was the key. Nearly 21 percent missed this area with moisturizer compared to 14 percent with sunscreen.
“We haven’t been able to find out exactly why our participants covered less facial area with moisturizer than sunscreen,” McCormick, who is also an honorary lecturer at University of Liverpool, told Healthline. “It is possible that subconsciously people are not as thorough as when they are applying a product to specifically protect the skin, but this is speculation.”
He added, “It could also be due to the nature and properties of the cream. A more spreadable cream is likely to reach more area and sunscreen may behave in this way.”
Dr. Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, told Healthline that facial moisturizers with SPF do tend to be “thinner and more watery.”
She said that they spread easily, which can lead to a thinner layer being applied on your face.
Piliang said there are other theories about the disparity between the application of sunscreen versus moisturizer.
“The skin around our eyes are delicate. Many people use special eye moisturizers which are different than their facial moisturizers,” Piliang added. “They may simply not put the facial moisturizer on their eye area for this reason. Also, many sunscreens can burn or irritate the eye. Again, this may be a reason for people to avoid the eye area with these products.”
If you’re concerned about exactly how you should apply sun protective products to your face, Piliang emphasized that you should put on a “fairly thick coat of the product.”
She said not to skimp or spread it out in a thin layer.
“Additionally, we should consciously make an effort to ensure we are putting the product around our eyes at a similar thickness. If eye irritation is a problem, then I recommend looking for a hypoallergenic formulation without fragrance,” she said.
She added that products containing ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide tend to be a bit thicker than the chemical sunscreens and are less irritating on the eyes.
“A product with these ingredients may be more tolerable,” she said.
Piliang said she hopes people don’t read these findings and decide to put their moisturizer away.
She urges people to continue using a facial moisturizer with SPF, pointing out that it’s still a good option for daily use if you’re walking to the office or doing other indoor activities. Just make sure to apply around your eyes.
“If you have outdoor activities on your agenda –– ball games, picnics, trips to the beach or pool, gardening –– then I recommend using a traditional sunscreen with a higher SPF and wearing a hat and sunglasses,” she suggested. “The sunglasses particularly provide additional protection for the delicate eye areas and with the hat will provide a little more protection in case you miss a spot.”
Piliang said the best SPF products to use are the ones you’ll actually commit to using, and using correctly.
“Look for products labeled broad-spectrum, which means it protects against UVA and UVB rays (two types of ultraviolet light that can harm the skin), with an SPF of at least 15,” she said. “If you are going to be outside, I would recommend at least an SPF of 30.”
When it comes to the latest research, McCormick said he and his team will be looking into how parents apply sunscreen to their children.
He encourages parents who are planning vacations with lots of sun this summer to take note of the recent study’s findings.
“We suspect that similar areas of the face may be missed [on children],” he said. “This is important because one of our main conclusions from our research is that sunscreen alone is not sufficient to protect the eyelids and therefore other measures, such as UV filter sunglasses and hats, are important.”
He added, “It is our belief that most parents are not in the habit of buying sunglasses for their children or enforcing their wear, so this may be an important public health message. “
New research out of the United Kingdom revealed that people who opt for facial moisturizers containing SPF aren’t getting the same protection from the sun’s harmful rays as they would when using a traditional sunscreen.
This is because people often don’t apply SPF moisturizers to their face as thoroughly as they do traditional sunscreen.
The study pointed to the area around the eyelids as particularly underprotected when people lather on SPF moisturizer.
Nevertheless, dermatologists recommend that these kinds of SPF-containing facial moisturizers, when applied correctly, can be useful when just walking to work or staying inside most of the day.
However, they suggest switching to sunscreen along with wearing a hat and sunglasses for longer periods of time spent in the sun.