The Ugly Truth about Makeup and Moisturizers with SPF!

Skin Care

Everyday, we make the conscious choice to trust all kinds of people, places, and things. We trust our best friend with our deepest, darkest secrets. We don’t second-guess that our bus or car or plane will get us to our destination safely. But when it comes to our beauty products, one time we should be skeptical when we are not is with makeup and moisturizers that contain sunscreen. It turns out that your average SPF 15 powder is giving you a true SPF of 1.1, and your SPF 15 moisturizer is giving you actual protection of SPF 8 to 10 with average application!

What is SPF?

SPF is the universal Sun Protection Factor. It is determined through a regimented process with strict standards that demand 2 mg of formula is applied to 600 cm2 of skin. The SPF itself is a measure of how many UVB rays get through.

SPF itself is determined by a ratio of the time it takes sunscreen-treated skin to burn divided by the amount of time it takes unprotected skin to burn.  It is a measure of skin barrier efficiency.

A good rule of thumb is the 1/SPF rule.  For instance, an SPF 15 formula lets about 6.7% of rays through, or 1/15. An SPF 50 formula allows 2.0% of rays through, or 1/50.

However, this is only the amount of protection you get when 2 mg of formula is applied to 600 cm2 of skin. When less is applied, you get less protection. So if you apply half of the standard amount of an SPF 15 formula, 13.4% of rays will get through – twice the amount you desire!

Why SPF Powders Aren’t Giving You the Protection You Think

Any powder product requires about 14 times the amount of normal powder application to receive the SPF listed on the package.

You see, the average face is about 600cm2 (although that varies from person to person, of course). This means the average woman needs to apply about 1.2g of facial powder to get the SPF stated on the product’s label. However, most women only apply about 0.085g of powder at a time – fourteen times less than you need to get the SPF listed on the package!

Why SPF Moisturizers Leave You Susceptible To Sun Damage Too

The problem is not as significant with moisturizers, but still alarming. Most women are getting about 60-80% the sun protection listed on the bottle. This is because 1/4-1/3 a teaspoon of sunscreen is needed for the face (1.23-1.62 mL), but average moisturizer applications are approximately 1 mL. So we are getting about 60-80% of the sun protection listed on the bottle.

What To Do?

I’m happy to report that I’m coming out with a sunscreen dosing system this summer! Still, until that time comes, I recommend either a.) using more product, or b.) boosting up your SPF protection with formulas like LaRoche Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Sunscreen SPF 60 ($21.88, and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Sunscreen SPF 100 ($21.12,

I also think it is worth mentioning if you do not get much (if any) sunscreen-free UV exposure, it is important to take a vitamin D3 supplement like GNC Vitamin D3 ($9.99, daily to maintain strong bones and a healthy immune system.

Bottom Line

Never, ever depend on your makeup or moisturizer for adequate SPF protection.

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Image source: Makeup related naval gazing, a photo by berthacrowley on Flickr.

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  • What are your thoughts on layering different products with SPF, or using ones with a higher SPF (ie, sunscreeens/moisturizers with SPF > 60)? If say you had a day cream with SPF 60, how much would actually be needed to give an SPF of at least 15 to give a bit of protection?

  • I actually took out some measuring spoons to see just how much product 1/4 to 1/3 tsp is and was shocked! I never use that much face cream. This was a real eye opener so thank you.

  • wow…thanks for this info but using more product is really not easy!!! did you come up with the new dosage system you were talkign in the post??? would love to read that.

  • Ana

    how about when a moisturizer has a higher spf? i use Olay Regenerist UV Defense Regenerating Lotion SPF 50 as my daily moisturizer, i’m pretty sure i don’t use the sufficient amount to have the stated protection, but it should still be enough to protect my skin right? i only use this one during the week to go to and from work, of course when i do outdoor activities and i’m exposed to the sun for longer periods i use a proper spf protector like the neutrogena and la roche posay ones you mentioned. do you think i should still be using them everyday?? thank you!

  • Jamie

    Thanks for clearing it up! It’s actually really simple 🙂

  • Hi @outinpout – You’re right, I wrote in the “rule of thumb” only originally and completely disregarded the official definition. I revised this now. The official definition is the amount of time for sunscreen treated skin to achieve redness (minimal erythema dose) divided by the amount of time for non-treated skin to achieve redness (minimal erythema dose), adjusted for different types of skins. Thanks for the gentle fix 🙂

  • @Jamie – Good guess! But not exactly. If it was exponential, an SPF number was twice as high, it would be four times as potent. If it was three times as high, it would be nine times as potent. Instead, here we’re dealing with a linear relationship. So SPF 50 = 1/50 = 0.02 = 2% of rays get through. SPF 100 = 1/100 = 0.01 = 1% of rays (or less) get through.

    It may seem logarithmic because, as you get to higher and higher numbers of SPF, you are getting less and less benefit with increasing numbers. For instance, SPF 50 is 2% more beneficial than SPF 25, but SPF 100 is only 1% more beneficial than SPF 50.

    However, in a true logarithmic relationship, there must be a base number raised to some power that produces a given number. There is no base number raised to a power that produces an SPF, nor is there a base number raised to a number of SPF that produces a given number. Instead, SPF is determined by the % of rays that get through, i.e., 1/(SPF number) * 100 = (% of rays that get through).

    I hope that this helps. Let me know if it’s not clear.

  • Great article Nicki! I don’t think a lot of people understand the sheer quantity of makeup you’d have to apply to get proper SPF. As you said, with powder it’s 1.2 grams. To break it down, that’s about 1/6 of an average-sized jar of mineral makeup! Can you imagine?

    Also, I have to say, I’ve never seen SPF explained like you did here. I’ve always seen the numbers used to denote a factor of time. The way it’s been explained to me is that an SPF 15 protects for 15 times the amount of time you can normally stay in the sun. Meaning if you usually burn in 10 minutes, and SPF 15 would extend that to 150 minutes. Is that an out-dated model with the new regulations, or was it always wrong?

  • Jamie

    Isn’t SPF logarithmic? So wouldn’t it be even less than 60-80%?

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