Health & Lifestyle

Why expensive spray-on sun lotion can leave you exposed to burns

Shopping for sunscreen? Alongside the conventional cream varieties, you’ll increasingly find sprays. 

Take Boots, which currently has more than 70 for sale — from £3.50 for 75ml of its Soltan own-brand spray, through to £38 for 150ml Shiseido Sports Invisible Protective Mist SPF50+ aerosol. 

There’s no doubt that spray formulations are convenient, but when it comes to protection are they really the best choice? 

‘I like to give practical advice, and if someone is more likely to use a spray or aerosol sunscreen because of ease of use, over not using a sunscreen at all, then I’ll be all for it, because something is better than nothing,’ says Dr Cristina Psomadakis, an NHS consultant dermatologist based in London. 

However, like many dermatologists, she has concerns about them. 

There¿s no doubt that spray formulations are convenient, but when it comes to protection are they really the best choice? (file photo)

There’s no doubt that spray formulations are convenient, but when it comes to protection are they really the best choice? (file photo)

‘All sunscreens, including sprays, have to undergo testing to validate the amount of sun protection that they give in order to get the SPF rating,’ she says. 

‘The issue with sprays is people often don’t know if they’re using the required amount in order to achieve the SPF rating on the bottle, because you don’t have a good perception of the quantity that’s being used.’ 

The SPF rating indicates the number by which you can multiply your skin’s natural resistance to going red in the sun. 

So if, without any protection, you’d go red after ten minutes, applying an SPF30 means you won’t go red for 300 minutes, or five hours. 

If without protection you go red after 20 minutes, using SPF30 means you won’t go red for 600 minutes, or ten hours. 

But that only stands if you reapply it every two hours or after getting wet, and apply the correct amount — 2mg/cm2 of skin, the amount used when testing sunscreens. 

Can the sun’s blue light make wrinkles appear? 

Blue light — part of the spectrum of visible light — is emitted from electronics such as computer screens. 

Many people worry that it accelerates skin ageing and, over time, can lead to skin discoloration and inflammation. 

In fact, you get more blue light from the sun than from electronic devices. 

But for most people it’s not going to be an issue for your skin, nor do you need your sunscreen to offer protection against it, says dermatologist Dr Emma Craythorne. 

‘Research suggests that blue light is more of a problem for darker skins — anything darker than, say, the darker Mediterranean skin tone — and generally only then if you have issues with pigmentation, such as melasma or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,’ she says. 

Dermatologist Dr Alexis Granite says the only ingredient that has been shown to protect effectively against it is iron oxide. 

‘Iron oxide is what gives tinted products their colour,’ she says. 

‘So ideally, use a tinted sunscreen, but if that’s not possible, a foundation or powder that contains iron oxide over the top of your usual sun protection should help.’

‘The rule of thumb is that two fingers — or two finger-length lines of a cream — on your middle and index finger will provide enough product to cover your face and neck,’ says Dr Sina Ghadiri, an NHS dermatology registrar based in Leeds. 

‘And it’s the same amount for one arm, half a leg, or half of your back or torso. But with a spray it’s almost impossible to gauge what an adequate amount would be,’ he says. 

Research in 2019 by the University of Colorado found that when people applied a spray SPF to their forearms, they didn’t apply enough to get the protection printed on the bottle. 

Most people applied only around 60 per cent of the amount needed, reported the Journal of the Academy of American Dermatology. 

But that’s not the only issue with spray SPFs: if you’re using your spray outside, the likelihood is that a lot of the product isn’t actually landing on your skin, instead it gets lost into the atmosphere. 

In fact a study by Griffith University in Australia in 2021 found that you could be wasting as much as 93 per cent of your sun protection if you apply a spray in windy conditions (around 12mph, a breeze that might shake a small tree and not unusual when you’re at the beach). 

Using a calibrated fan and a device to measure wind speed, the researchers tested five different aerosol sunscreens and discovered that in windy conditions an adult would need more than one bottle for a single fullbody application in the vast majority of cases. 

When conditions were completely still, a single bottle provided around two-and-a-half full-body applications. 

Following the report, the Australian Cancer Council strongly urged against the use of aerosol sunscreens. 

But even if you’re applying your sunscreen indoors, where the air is still, the chances are you aren’t applying enough. 

‘Some people spray the product into their hands and then distribute it on their body to give them a better idea of how much they’re using and where they’re distributing it,’ says Dr Psomadakis. 

‘But some of the liquid in your hand will include propellant [added to help push out product in a fine mist], which doesn’t have SPF coverage — so you’re not getting as much sunscreen as you think you are.’ 

It’s difficult to know how much propellant is in your sunscreen, but typically it will be around half of the liquid that you get out, so you’ll need to use twice as much product as you think. 

One study, by Queensland University of Technology in Australia in 2020, found that the amount of propellant in aerosol sunscreen ranged from 27 per cent to 83 per cent, meaning as little as 17 per cent of what you’re spraying is actually protecting you — and that’s if you’re applying the right amount. 

The SPF you get is proportional to the amount you put on, so if you’re spraying on an SPF50 but only getting about one sixth of the amount you should, you’re effectively only applying SPF8. 

Finally, there are concerns about the potential health implications of aerosols. 

The SPF rating indicates the number by which you can multiply your skin¿s natural resistance to going red in the sun (file photo)

The SPF rating indicates the number by which you can multiply your skin’s natural resistance to going red in the sun (file photo)

‘In the U.S., several brands [including Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Aveeno] have recalled aerosol sunscreens over the past few years after concerns they may contain benzene,’ says Dr Alexis Granite, a consultant dermatologist based in London. ‘Benzene is a carcinogen [i.e. cancer-causing]— it’s a chemical in cigarette smoke and produced in a number of industrial processes, but it shouldn’t be in sunscreen.’ 

The source of the contaminant isn’t clear, but it’s thought that butane, a propellant often used in aerosols, could contain benzene from the refinement process. 

None of the products identified in the U.S. as containing benzene is sold in the UK.

But there may be other concerns. 

‘Some of the mineral sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and, when you use that in aerosol form, it can be inhaled and can irritate the nose, throat and lungs,’ says Dr Granite. 

Some animal studies suggest it could, in large doses, be carcinogenic if inhaled. 

The case against spray sunscreen seems pretty clear cut. 

‘For me, their only place is if the alternative is nothing at all,’ says Dr Ghadiri. 

Dr Granite says if you do want to use a spray, look for a pump spray — these don’t use propellants, so you can pump them into your hands to get an idea of how much you’re using, and, as the droplets aren’t as fine, they’re less subject to being blown by the wind. 

Even then, Dr Psomadakis adds: ‘Use a cream as your base and if you want to use a spray, use it as a top-up.’ 

There’s also the fact that you’re probably paying over the odds for the convenience. 

For example, Soltan Clear & Cool Protect Suncare Mist SPF30 is £7 for 200ml, while Soltan Protect & Moisturise Lotion SPF30 is £3.89 for the same amount; and Nivea Protect & Dry Touch Mist SPF30 is £9.50 for 200ml, while Nivea SPF30 Protect & Moisture Lotion is £6 for the same amount.

The best SPF for YOUR skin problem 

Choosing the right sun cream if you have a skin condition can be tricky. Here, Dr Maham Khan, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London, picks her best buys… 


Skinceuticals Oil Shield UV Defence Sunscreen SPF50 (pictured), £42.75 for 30ml,

Skinceuticals Oil Shield UV Defence Sunscreen SPF50 (pictured), £42.75 for 30ml,

TOP CHOICE : Skinceuticals Oil Shield UV Defence Sunscreen SPF50, £42.75 for 30ml, 

Acne is triggered by an over-production of sebum (oil) that can block the pores, trapping bacteria and leading to inflammation and spots. Some sun creams contain an oil that is comedogenic — it clogs the pores. 

This lotion is oil-free and noncomedogenic — and provides a high SPF. It also contains silica silicate, a mineral that absorbs sebum on the surface of skin. 


TOP CHOICE : La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMUNE 400 SPF50, £19.90 for 50ml, 

Eczema affects around one in 12 adults, causing itchy and inflamed skin. Some find sunlight or sunscreens containing fragrance make it worse. 

Look for products that are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic. 

As well as high sun protection, this contains thermal spring water which is rich in natural minerals; studies by the maker suggest this helps soothe itchy, inflamed skin. 


TOP CHOICE: Altruist AntiRedness & Pigmentation SPF50, £11.50 for 30ml, 

This inflammatory skin condition causes red flushing on the face and can be triggered and exacerbated by UV light from the sun. 

As well as SPF50, this cream contains liquorice root, calendula and horse chestnut which research suggests can have an anti-inflammatory action on irritated skin. 

It’s also tinted green which has a ‘colour correcting’ effect to help conceal redness. 

Exposed scalp 

Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF50 (pictured), £37.39 for 6g,

Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF50 (pictured), £37.39 for 6g,

TOP CHOICE: Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF50, £37.39 for 6g, 

The scalp accounts for 20 per cent of skin cancer cases. This is particularly a problem for those with thinning hair or bald patches. 

This powder is a mineral sunscreen; i.e. a physical sunblock that deflects the sun’s rays (many creams provide a chemical sunblock, absorbing light and releasing it as heat from the skin). 

Applied with the brush, it won’t weigh down hair or leave a residue. 

Sensitised skin 

TOP CHOICE: Eucerin Actinic Control SPF 100, £25 for 80ml, 

Medications such as radiotherapy and Roaccutane (for acne) damage the skin’s protective barrier, leaving it sensitive and more vulnerable to sunburn. 

Anyone on these treatments (and those with a history of skin cancer) need extra high SPF. 

This lightweight cream offers SPF100, blocking out 99 per cent of UV rays 

Source: Caroline Jones 

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