ADVICE: Do I need sunscreen if there's SPF in my moisturizer?

The main difference between an SPF moisturizer and sunscreen is that the moisturizer hydrates skin, while sunscreen protects from the sun’s damaging UV rays.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read November 26, 2021

Protecting your skin from the sun is important, even if you spend all day inside. (Getty)

Dear Asking For A Friend,

I have read that sunblock should be worn all the time, even indoors. But I have SPF in my moisturizer — is that enough?

Signed, Sensitive Skin

Dear Sensitive Skin,

Dual-action skincare may be more budget-friendly than purchasing two separate products for your skin needs, but an SPF moisturizer is not a substitute for sunscreen.

“My preference is to use separate products for moisturizers and sunscreens,” says Dr. Julia Carroll, a dermatologist and member of the Canadian Dermatology Association. “I don’t feel that people apply moisturizer in the same thorough way they do for sunscreen.  Also, the SPF in moisturizer is often low. I generally recommend an SPF of 30 or higher for daily use.”

In an ideal world, a single product would banish wrinkles and address all types of skin concerns, but that’s not the world we live in. Luckily, we can expect to see more streamlined skin care in 2022. In fact, products that multitask are already simplifying beauty routines.

A moisturizer with SPF 15 is one such dual-action product that is meant to hydrate skin and protect it against sun damage — but the latter may only be true to a certain extent. One study found that while an SPF moisturizer does offer a level of protection, some people may be hesitant to apply the product so close to the eyelids out of fear that it may produce a stinging sensation, similar to when tiny amounts of sunscreen get into the eyes. But this area is actually more vulnerable to skin cancer, so protecting it against sun damage is important.

The main difference between an SPF moisturizer and actual sunscreen is that the primary function of a moisturizer is to hydrate skin, while sunscreen is meant to create a barrier that reflects sun’s UV rays away from the skin. Experts agree that using sunscreen in addition to an SPF moisturizer provides better protection, but there is no clear consensus on when to apply each product. Some say that sunscreen should be layered on top of a moisturizer, while others suggest that it should be the other way around to ensure it’s properly absorbed into the skin.

Carroll recommends incorporating sunscreen into your daily skin care routine even if you use an SPF moisturizer, and especially if you spend your day exposed to direct sunlight.

“If you are indoors but sitting by a window, ultraviolet A rays still get through,” she says. “These rays can travel deep into the skin and cause long term damage such as wrinkles and they also play a role in some skin cancers.”

Carroll also suggests that UVA rays may also creep in through a car window, so if you commute, consider reapplying sunscreen for added protection, regardless of your skin type or colour. People with a fair complexion may burn easily due to low levels of melanin, but skin damage that may lead to melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer can occur in anyone. To reduce your risk, apply sunscreen every day, year-round.

It’s also a good idea to look for the Canadian Dermatology Association or CDA logo on sunscreen products as this shows they have been tested and are effective. Other suggestions include limiting your exposure to the sun from 11 am to 3 pm, wearing a hat and sunglasses, and reapplying sunscreen after activities, such as swimming.

And in case you think sunscreen is too heavy and greasy to put on your face year-round, they actually come in a variety of forms and consistencies to choose from. If you’re worried about looking like Mark Zuckerberg on a surfing trip, consider a weightless facial sunscreen or a spray.

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