Does Powder Sunscreen Work as Well as Liquid Sunscreen?

With new innovations in sun protection popping up every day, it can be hard to know which ones to choose. Some are oldies but goodies, while some just don’t live up to the hype. There are so many factors to consider when it comes to sunscreen: SPF30 or SPF50? Liquid sun protection or powders? Liquid sunscreens are easy to spread and live in most everyone’s medicine cabinets, yet the newer sunscreen powders are versatile enough to finish off your makeup look and protect you from the sun. The best part about a powder sunscreen is the fact that you can pop it in your gym bag or purse and have sun protection with you, wherever you go. But with all that convenience, you have to wonder if it’s as effective as your old standby liquid formulas.  

Here’s what a top dermatologist has to say about the liquid versus powder sunscreen debate.

User error is a big factor

Dr. Sharyn A. Laughlin, medical director of The Sunscreen Company and Laserderm, says the short answer is: No, powder sunscreens do not work as well as the liquids. “The primary issue relates to application,” she explains. “It simply is not clear that people, in the normal course of using a powder sunscreen, will apply enough coverage, evenly.”

Basically, it comes down to user error. If you’re not thorough, you’re probably not getting it everywhere you need it to protect you from the sun—especially if you get a delicate and sheer formulation. “If you consider that these powders are touted for their transparent and blendable coverage,” Dr. Laughlin continues, “it makes sense that a user just has no real way of knowing that they’ve applied the product adequately to rely on it for sun protection.”   

The skin’s surface is not smooth

Regardless of how great your skin looks, it is not super smooth. “The skin is not mono-planar, which means simply that it’s not a smooth surface,” Dr. Laughlin says. “Rather, we all have hills and valleys to our skin surface.” This means that we need to adequately rub sunscreen onto all those hills and valleys on the skin’s surface in order for it to protect us thoroughly. A quick dusting of a sunscreen powder is likely not going to hit all the skin’s surfaces.

There’s risk involved

Many skincare buffs who have started making the switch over to “non-toxic” or “clean” beauty products are already wary of the inhalation of loose powders, especially if those powders contain talc. When it comes to any powder, whether it be makeup or sunscreen, there is a debate about the risk of inhaling them. “Minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been found to be safe when applied topically on the skin,” Dr. Laughlin says. “They sit on the surface of the dead layer of the skin, and have been shown through repeated studies that they do not get absorbed into our bodies even in nano-particulate form.”

What that means is there is no risk of zinc oxide sunscreen getting absorbed into our bloodstream and harming us when we apply a lotion sunblock. “There is less concrete safety data when it comes to the risk posed by these materials when inhaled into the lungs,” Dr. Laughlin explains. “It should be noted that spray sunscreens are being reviewed for safety by the FDA, and they have put out a call for more data before finalizing anything into law. It’s reasonable to assume similar safety risks from sprays as powders in terms of possibility for poor or inadequate application and risk of inhalation.” Powders and sprays can certainly be handy to have on hand, but the risk of breathing them into our lungs leaves cause for concern.  

Layering is key

Dr. Laughlin recommends layering a good mineral sunblock makeup product on top of a lotion-based sunscreen. “A good mineral makeup with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, layered over their sunscreen, will top off their protection, but I caution my patients not to rely on it alone,” she says. So it’s not a bad idea to apply a lotion first, and then add additional powder sun protection on top. “I also advise clients to apply a sunscreen powder delicately to ensure they are not creating dust clouds of product around their face, and add that they should avoid breathing in while applying just to err on the side of caution,” she says.

Here’s what you should look for

“A sunscreen is only as good as its active ingredients,” Dr. Laughlin explains. “Zinc oxide remains the only ingredient in North America that provides broad spectrum protection, which is protection against UVA and UVB rays.” She recommends looking for formulas with high concentrations—about 15-25%—of zinc oxide.


Lisa Bensley is the founder of BeautyByBenz, a health and beauty blog that is really just an excuse to buy too much makeup. When she is not writing, she's probably boxing, obsessing over her Dachshund, Stanley, reading, or binge-watching Law & Order: SVU. Follow her (and Stanley's) antics on Instagram.