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.

“You still need sunscreen, even if a cosmetic product has sunscreen in it,” said Ramsay Farah, dermatologist with Farah Dermatology and Cosmetics in Syracuse.

Part of the problem, he said, is that many cosmetic products have low SPF — such as 10 — and how they’re applied. Instead of the thick coating of sunscreen, users apply make-up products such as primer and foundation thinner and blend them into the skin more. They also skip exposed areas such as the ears, neck and throat.

Farah’s sister, Joyce Farah, also a dermatologist at Farah Dermatology, said that starting with a base sunscreen helps provide better protection. Users can add primer and make-up on top of the base layer 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. SPF measures the protection that a sunscreen provides against the sun. SPF rated higher than 30 doesn’t offer a significant advantage.

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.

“You still need sunscreen, even if a cosmetic product has sunscreen in it.”
-Ramsay Farah, dermatologist with Farah Dermatology and Cosmetics in Syracuse.

“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.

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, Joyce Farah suggested using a SPF mineral powder as a touch-up to avoid piling on more sunscreen midday “or wear a hat or both,” she said. “There are some really good make-up lines with minerals and sunscreen for when you don’t want to apply more sunscreen on top of make-up.”

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

She suggested tinted sunscreen for a more casual look that’s easier to reapply later.

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

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.