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Spray sunscreen 101: How to use and shop for spray sunscreens

Dermatologists weigh in on the efficacy of spray sunscreen and offer advice on how to shop for spray sunscreens this summer.
Image: Close up of mother protecting her son with suntan lotion at the beach.
Top-rated spray sunscreens include options from Banana Boat, Elta MD, Coola and more.skynesher / Getty Images

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Throughout our skin care coverage, medical experts have lauded various types of sunscreen — spray, mineral, acne and kids, to name a few — for protecting you from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, which can lead to skin cancer, sunburns and signs of aging. Spray sunscreen in particular has garnered notable attention recently after Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled five sunblocks containing “low levels” of benzene, a carcinogen that can be absorbed by the skin, according to board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD. In a press release, Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreens, noted this recall impacts only the aerosol version of the below sunscreens:

  • Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen
  • Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen
  • Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen
  • Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen

To learn more about benzene and what the Johnson & Johnson recall means to your everyday sunscreen needs, we consulted dermatologists about the concerns around benzene, plus common misconceptions about spray sunscreens. They also made the argument for continued regular sunscreen use.

SKIP AHEAD Top-rated spray sunscreens

What is benzene and should I stop wearing sunscreen?

Benzene is a chemical compound and a carcinogen, meaning it can potentially lead to cancer, though that’s not always the case. It is also not a normal skin care ingredient and “should not be used in personal care” items, noted Garshick. She highlighted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it a Class 1 Solvent, meaning it is “known to cause unacceptable toxicities,” according to the most recent 2017 release from the FDA.

Even in small doses — trace parts per million — your skin can absorb benzene, noted Kimberly Morel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Columbia University. “Ongoing exposures are likely of main concern, and sunscreens are regularly applied to the skin of children and adults, often in large amounts,” she said. (You should apply 1 ounce — the volume of a golf ball or filled shot glass — to your exposed skin, board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, previously advised in our guide to choosing the best sunscreens.)

In its press release, Johnson & Johnson did not disclose the exact amount of benzene that was found in the five recalled spray sunscreens — it only said there were “low levels of benzene in some samples of the products.” Garshick noted “it’s best not to panic” because “it is unknown how much [benzene] was present in sunscreen [and] is actually absorbed into the system, and as such, how likely it is to cause any harm.”

If you currently own any of the impacted sunscreens, your safest bet is to stop using those products immediately, and Garshick recommended reaching out to Johnson & Johnson’s Consumer Care Center (1-800-458-1673).

Top-rated spray sunscreens

Johnson & Johnson’s benzene recall only applies to the five previously mentioned spray sunscreens. Garshick emphasized it “does not apply to all sunscreens,” whether they are from Neutrogena and Aveeno or other competing brands. “You should absolutely still wear sunscreen,” she advised. Morel agreed and called sun protection — a combination of sunscreen, UPF clothing and UPF hats — “essential” as sun damage can lead to “painful sunburns,” aging and “most importantly,” skin cancer.

Many people use spray sunscreen to protect their skin from the sun’s UV rays. It's a quick and easy way to apply sunscreen, and eliminates time you’d otherwise be spending rubbing in a messy, white and creamy substance. Spray sunscreen is sold by brands like Coppertone and Banana Boat and it’s easily accessible. You can purchase spray sunscreen in stores such as Sephora and Ulta, or online at retailers like Amazon and Dermstore.

Keeping in mind expert guidance on how to shop for spray sunscreen, we've compiled some top-rated options below.

1. Banana Boat Ultra Sport Performance Sunscreen Spray

This spray sunscreen is lightweight and breathable, so it won’t leave skin feeling sticky. It’s specifically designed for those participating in outdoor activities like running and playing volleyball. The broad-spectrum sunscreen quickly absorbs into skin and protects you from UVA rays, which can cause wrinkles and age spots, and UVB rays, overexposure to which will lead to sunburns.

2. COOLA Organic Sunscreen Body Spray

Made with organic ingredients like aloe vera extract, this paraben-free spray sunscreen contains antioxidants that nourish skin while protecting it from the sun. It has a sheer finish and feels light on skin. The sunscreen smells like peaches, and it’s water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

3. Babo Botanicals Sheer Zinc Continuous Spray Sunscreen

Babies, kids and adults with sensitive skin can benefit from this hypoallergenic spray sunscreen. It contains ingredients like sunflower seed, avocado and jojoba oils, plus organic watercress, all of which work to reduce inflammation and soothe skin. This sunscreen is ultra-sheer and lightweight, and provides up to 80 minutes of water and sweat-resistant coverage.

4. Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Weightless Clear Spray Sunscreen

The coconut fragrance infused into this sunscreen might transport you momentarily to a tropical island. It’s made from moisturizing ingredients — like mineral oil and fruit extracts — that leave a light texture on skin; it's designed so you won’t feel like you’re wearing sunscreen at all. Since this broad-spectrum sunscreen sprays on clear, it does not coat skin in a white residue.

5. Coppertone Kids Spray Sunscreen

Coppertone designed this broad-spectrum spray sunscreen specifically for kids. It sticks to skin so it won’t run into kids’ eyes, and it’s made from a tear-free formula (just in case), according to the brand. You can spray the sunscreen on kids’ skin from any angle, providing maximum coverage. The sunblock is water-resistant for 80 minutes, useful for kids who love to swim or play in sprinklers.

6. Sun Bum Mineral Sunscreen Spray

This broad-spectrum spray sunscreen is made from a zinc-based mineral formula. It’s hypoallergenic and good for those with sensitive skin, accorsing to the brand. Sun Bum suggests shaking the bottle before using, and applying it to skin 15 minutes before sun exposure.

7. PCA Skin Spray Sunscreen

PCA’s non-aerosol continuous spray sunscreen allows you to evenly coat skin. The product was created specifically for people who engage in outdoor activities like hiking and sports, as it provides sweat-resistant broad spectrum protection. This spray sunscreen was designed in compliance with Hawaii Act 104, which prohibits the sale and distribution of sunscreens that contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate in Hawaii. (In January 2021, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of chemical sunscreens formulated with those aforementioned ingredients.) Since PCA’s spray sunscreen meets these standards, it’s ocean- and environmental-friendly.

8. Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Sunscreen Spray

Neutrogena designed this spray sunscreen specifically for kids. It’s oil-free and hypoallergenic, as well as provides broad-spectrum protection. You can apply this spray sunscreen to wet or dry skin, making it easy to use right after kids get out of the pool or when they’re sweaty from playing outdoors.

9. EltaMD UV Aero Full-Body Spray Sunscreen

EltaMD’s spray sunscreen can be used by both children and adults due to its gentle formula. It’s made from an oil-free, zinc-based mineral formula that sprays on white but becomes sheer when rubbed in. This sunscreen is also non-comedogenic, which means it's designed to prevent clogging pores or irritating acne.

10. Hint Spray Sunscreen

Hint, known best for its fruit-infused water, also makes a line of spray sunscreen. It comes in three scents: Pineapple, Grapefruit (currently sold out) and Pear. The sunscreen is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and dries quickly once applied. You can purchase each scent individually or as a pack of three, and Hint sells travel-sized bottles of spray sunscreen to take with you on the go.

11. La Roche Posay Anthelios Lotion Spray Sunscreen

This spray sunscreen contains senna alata, a tropical leaf extract rich in antioxidants that helps protect skin from free radicals caused by UV rays. It has a 360-degree spray application, making it easy to fully cover skin in sunscreen. The sunscreen is alcohol-free and doesn't make skin feel greasy after application.

12. BeautyCounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist

Formulated with non-nano zinc oxide, this mineral-based sunscreen blends into skin and won’t leave an oily residue behind. The mist is powered by compressed air, so it’s free of propellent chemicals that are often found in aerosol cans. BeautyCounter’s spray sunscreen contains vitamin E, a hydrating antioxidant that helps to fight free radicals.

Spray sunscreen myths, debunked

  • Not all spray sunscreens contain benzene, but they might contain other chemical additives that can potentially irritate the skin, said Morel.
  • Spray sunscreens are flammable and “should never be used” near an open flame — be sure to read the bottle’s warning label, advised Morel.

Is spray sunscreen effective?

According to board-certified dermatologist Harold Lancer, MD, people often think spray sunscreen is more effective than its cream, lotion and gel counterparts. However, that might not be the case. Whether or not spray sunscreen is effective at protecting skin also has to do with how often it's reapplied. He said sunscreen in any form should not be depended on alone; it’s best when paired with sun-avoidance accessories, like sunglasses, hats and visors.

Because spray sunscreen is usually an aerosol product, Lancer said applying it can be quite difficult. Wind currents and airflow outside can move particles of spray sunscreen away from the body so not enough gets on skin. Because of this, he said, you have to use a lot of spray sunscreen. Often, however, people don’t use nearly enough. Considering improperly applied sunscreen has Lancer increasingly concerned about sunburns and the development of skin cancer. Additionally, inhaling spray sunscreen is dangerous, not to mention it can coat furniture (or toilet seats) and make floor surfaces slippery.

Overall, Lancer thinks of spray sunscreen as similar to an electric toothbrush: It might seem “better” in theory, but how much it really works depends on if it’s used properly.

How to apply spray sunscreen

After you spray sunscreen on your body, it’s important to make sure you can see the substance on your skin. If you can’t, the particles probably got lost in the air. Lancer said it’s also critical to rub in spray sunscreen. If you don’t, there won’t be an even distribution across your skin, thus increasing the chance of getting sunburned. Regardless of the type of sunscreen you use, it needs to be applied every two hours, according to Lancer. If you’re participating in outdoor sports or are going in the water, you need to apply sunscreen every hour because it rubs off your skin.

Where to apply spray sunscreen — and areas to avoid

  • Spray sunscreen can be useful to apply to the back, especially if you don’t have a partner to help you apply cream, lotion or gel sunscreen to that area.
  • Lancer does not recommend using spray sunscreen on the face and ears. He said spray sunscreen won’t clog pores more than any other types, however.
  • Lancer does not recommend using spray sunscreen on parts of the body where there may be a lot of rubbing or irritation, as this can cause the sunscreen to wear away more quickly.
  • Lancer urges people to be conscious of applying sunscreen in “nooks and crannies” that are often forgotten about, like the ears, scalp, eyebrows and upper eyelids.

In general, Lancer thinks using cream, lotion or gel sunscreen is a safer option when compared to spray sunscreen. But as long as you’re using some type of sunblock, he said it’s better than nothing, adding many people think they’re invincible to skin cancer, so they’re lazy about using sunscreen and practicing sun avoidance.

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