Powder Sunscreen: What It Is, When to Apply It, and How It Can Help to Protect Your Skin All Day Long

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Powder sunscreen

Mineral sunscreen has come a long way. Thanks to recent technological advances, the newest formulas no longer feel thick and heavy on our skin, nor do they leave that dreaded white cast.

But there's one thing that sunscreen formulators haven't solved for us yet. Even with the best SPF, we STILL need to re-apply it every two hours during direct sun exposure to stay protected.

That's where powder sunscreen comes in.

In this tutorial, you will learn:

  • What powder sunscreen is
  • The benefits of including it in your routine
  • How much protection it offers, and whether it's safe
  • The best products to try, and how to use them

What Is Powder Sunscreen?

Powder sunscreen is also known as "dry sunscreen." 

It looks, feels and applies like loose powder makeup—but rather than just perfecting your skin, it's ALSO giving you sun protection.

The active ingredients in powder sunscreen are the exact same ones you'll find in mineral sunscreen lotions and creams:

  • Zinc oxide: The single best UV filter that we have available here in North America. It offers extensive protection against both UVA (the aging rays) and UVB (the burning rays).
  • Titanium dioxide: It provides extensive protection from UVB, but only partial protection from UVA. So it should always be combined with a stronger UVA filter, like zinc oxide.

As minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide already exist in powder form. To make a "wet" sunscreen, they need to be evenly dispersed throughout a liquid. For powder sunscreen, they are typically mixed with ingredients like mica, silica, iron oxides and emollients to reflect light or mattify, add pigment, and properly adhere to the skin. 

The Benefits of Powder Sunscreen

Here are all the reasons to love powder sunscreen:

  • SPF 20 to SPF 50: Just like other sunscreens, powder sunscreens have a sun protection factor (SPF) on their labels, ranging from SPF 20 to as high as SPF 50.
  • Looks and feels invisible: Powder sunscreen is virtually undetectable on your skin. It's non-greasy, available in both translucent and tinted versions, and once it's on, you can't even tell that you're wearing sunscreen. Bonus: Just like a regular powder, it can also help to absorb excess oil, even out your skin tone, and set your makeup.
  • Easy to re-apply: Topping up your sun protection every two hours with a creamy sunscreen can be unpleasant, to say the least. Not only can it leave your skin looking shiny and blotchy, but it totally messes up the makeup you carefully applied that morning. Plus, if you can't wash your face, the process may even trap debris in your pores, leading to breakouts. But with a powder sunscreen, re-application is quick and easy. You just dust it on right over your makeup. How convenient is that?
  • Portable: Each tube of powder sunscreen comes with a built-in, self-dispensing brush, so it couldn't be easier to use on the go. I suggest keeping one in your handbag at all times so that you'll always have a back-up or "emergency" sunscreen.
  • Good for sensitive skin: Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are known to be gentle on sensitive skin. And since powder sunscreens tend to use fewer inactive ingredients than "wet" sunscreens (including fewer, if any, preservatives), there's less potential for a reaction. 
  • Won't clog pores: Powder sunscreens are almost always non-comedogenic. Rather than sinking into your skin, they stay on top of it, with a dry texture. So they're especially well-suited to oily and acne-prone skin.
  • Not just for the face: While powder sunscreen may be impractical to use all over the body, it's ideal for areas like your chest, neck, ears and hands. It's also a great way to protect your scalp without making your hair limp and greasy. Just brush it down your part and along your hairline.

Does Powder Sunscreen Work?

How effective is powder sunscreen?

While it has been proven to help shield skin from UV rays, powder sunscreen is best used IN ADDITION to a regular sunscreen—not in place of it.

That's because, practically speaking, most of us probably won't get perfect coverage with our application techniques. 

Since powder is so light and invisible on the skin, it's very easy to miss a spot. You also need to apply it liberally in order to achieve the SPF number on the label, so many of us probably won't use quite enough.

But by layering a powder sunscreen over a cream or lotion sunscreen, you're getting the best of both worlds. 

Apply a good mineral sunscreen in the morning, and then use your powder SPF on top for quick touch-ups throughout the day. Even if your application is imperfect, you'll still have that base level of protection.

Is Powder Sunscreen Safe?

In North America, powder sunscreen is considered a drug—just like any other sunscreen—and is regulated by the FDA and Health Canada. So if you're seeing drug facts on a label, the product has gone through the appropriate testing and approval processes.

Just keep in mind that the FDA has requested more research on powders as part of their new proposed sunscreen regulations. "Powders are proposed to be eligible," states the release, "but additional data are requested before powders can be included in the monograph." (According to Health Canada's sunscreen monograph, powder is considered an "acceptable dosage form" for sunscreen ingredients.)

The FDA's reasoning likely has to do with the aforementioned application issues with powder sunscreen, which could leave you vulnerable to sunburn and skin damage if you miss any areas of skin. (Again, you can avoid this by always pairing powder sunscreen with a base layer of sunscreen cream or lotion.)

But the other safety consideration is inhalation. If zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are ground down into tiny nanoparticles, inhaling them could put you at risk of airway damage, inflammation and oxidative stress.

Fortunately, most powder sunscreens these days consist of large particle sizes that are considered "non-nano." "Most cosmetic companies sheer their sunscreen particles into various sizes that are well above the nanoparticle range, to not penetrate the skin or be dangerous if inhaled," explains Dr. Annie Chiu in an interview with Refinery29.

How to Use Powder Sunscreen

Ready to add powder sunscreen to your beauty routine? Here's what I recommend:

  • Start with a mineral sunscreen lotion or cream: After you've cleansed, exfoliated and hydrated your skin, your cream- or lotion-based sunscreen should go onto any exposed areas. ("The lynchpin of photoprotection is to apply a sunscreen every day, first thing in the morning, regardless of your intended activity," says Dr. Sharyn Laughlin.) See my sunscreen ingredients tutorial for what to look for, and my guides to the best mineral sunscreens and the best zinc oxide sunscreens.
  • Apply makeup (if you wear it): Any makeup that you like to wear can come next. Or, you can use powder sunscreen right over your base layer of sunscreen.
  • Ensure your skin is dry: Before you apply the powder, make sure your skin is dry to the touch. Your previous layer of sunscreen should be absorbed and your makeup should be set. Otherwise, you could get a streaky application and your protection won't be as effective.
  • Apply powder sunscreen: Tap the built-in brush to check that the powder is flowing. Then, sweep it over your skin using small circular motions. Colorescience recommends doing at least two passes over the skin for adequate protection.
  • Do not inhale: To be on the safe side, I hold my breath and avoid inhaling while I'm swirling the powder over my face. When I do take a breath, I make sure to take a step away from where I was standing, so I'm not breathing in any powder in the air. 
  • Touch-up every two hours: Like any other SPF, it's important to re-apply every two hours when you're getting sun exposure.

Ready to see my top powder picks? Read on!

The Best Powder Sunscreens

Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 protects with 12 percent zinc oxide and 15 percent titanium dioxide, and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. Choose from the original formula, which is translucent, or Touch of Tan, which has a warm tint.

Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50

Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50

Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50

Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 offers a high level of protection thanks to 22.5 percent each of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It comes in four matte shades (from fair to deep), and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. Also consider the brand's new Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush for oily and acne-prone skin, which has 21 percent zinc oxide and no tint.

Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Powder SPF 30

Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Powder SPF 30

Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Powder SPF 30

Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Powder SPF 30 gives you 20 percent zinc oxide and 17.29 percent titanium dioxide in one translucent, mattifying shade. It's also oil-free and silicone-free. 

Éminence Sun Defense Minerals SPF 30

Eminence Sun Defense Minerals SPF 30

Éminence Sun Defense Minerals SPF 30

Éminence Sun Defense Minerals SPF 30 contains eight percent each of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and comes in five shades as well as translucent. It has a short and natural ingredients list, and is water-resistant for up to 40 minutes.

Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense

Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense

Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense

Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense has 20 percent zinc oxide and 17.3 percent titanium dioxide in a silicone-free blend of mica, silica and vitamin E. It comes in one translucent matte shade to match all skin tones.

Paula’s Choice On-the-Go Shielding Powder SPF 30

Paula's Choice On-the-Go Shielding Powder SPF 30

Paula's Choice On-the-Go Shielding Powder SPF 30

Paula's Choice On-the-Go Shielding Powder SPF 30 features 19.24 percent zinc oxide as its active ingredient. This one is a translucent powder that also mattifies shine and blurs pores (perhaps due to the silicones).

Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45

Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45

Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45

Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45 wards off UV rays with 19.6 percent zinc oxide and 20.75 percent titanium dioxide. Meanwhile, it coats skin in a matte, translucent veil.

Supergoop! Invincible Setting Powder SPF 45

Supergoop Invincible Setting Powder SPF 45

Supergoop! Invincible Setting Powder SPF 45

Supergoop! Invincible Setting Powder SPF 45 uses 24.5 percent zinc oxide to protect your skin as it reduces shine. The silicone-free powder is available in three matte tints, along with a translucent version.

Tarte SEA Set & Protect Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 30

Tarte SEA Set Protect Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 30

Tarte SEA Set & Protect Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 30

Tarte SEA Set & Protect Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 30 is formulated with 10 percent zinc oxide and 8.6 percent titanium dioxide, and promises to set makeup for up to 12 hours. It goes on translucent, and has a light, natural vanilla scent.

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