Spray vs. Cream Sunscreen: One Man’s Journey

Spray vs. Cream Sunscreen: One Man’s Journey

When I was student-teaching in Australia in the ’90s, everyone was justifiably freaking out about the ozone. When we’d take our students to the beach, they’d line up and we’d systematically slather them with thick white sunblock — even behind the ears.

That was enough sunscreen-spreading for a lifetime, so I was delighted when spray sunscreens started to proliferate in the 21st century. I went right to the top: the most decadent spray screen available in drugstores, Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Body Mist Broad Spectrum SPF 100+. Every morning before I’d bike to work, I’d step out on to the porch and generously mist my unevenly toned bod.

It went on easy, it felt refreshing, I never got sunburned. What wasn’t to love?

A lot, according to a post that Marnie Shure enthusiastically tweeted into my timeline. I clicked on Rose Pastore’s Gizmodo post with a wince, expecting the kind of definitive takedown that had forced me to reluctantly forsake my beloved, lake-polluting Bath & Body Works microbead hand soaps.

The case against spray sunscreen, though, isn’t quite as open-and-shut. Pastore makes three main arguments: (a) spray sunscreen isn’t really as convenient as you think, (b) it’s wasteful because so much product is lost to the wind, (c) the long-term effects of inhaling sunscreen are unknown.

I wan’t convinced, and I told Marnie so, at which she prevailed upon me to at least try Neutrogena’s equivalent cream product. (Note: despite all the brand name-dropping in this post, none of the sunscreen I tried was provided for free. I wish.)

I also brought the question to my sister, a nurse practitioner. She pretty much echoed Pastore’s perspective: spray sunscreen is better than no sunscreen, but she’d recommend a hard-core zinc-based sunblock. Most sunscreens, she said — spray or cream — contain a range of potentially dangerous chemicals. Like what? “Well, I can’t just pronounce them.”

Okay, so I was in for at least a tube of Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen. The first thing I noticed was that although the price was about the same for the spray can and the cream tube, the latter contained significantly less product by weight: the can had five ounces of sunscreen, while the tube had just three.

That seemed to undercut at least the economic argument for spray sunscreen being wasteful. Even if I lost as much as 40% of each puff to the Minnesota breeze, I was still getting at least as much product for the buck. Nor does the spray product seem to be diluted: the percentage of active ingredients are the same in each.

I appreciate Pastore’s observation that you still have to rub the spray screen on, especially on your face. “Do not spray directly into face,” directs the can. “Spray on hands and then apply to face.” So was I doing, but one immediate benefit I noticed from the cream: it didn’t get in my eyes the way the spray did. Even though I was rubbing it on my face instead of spraying it, somehow the runnier texture of the spray made it more likely to get in my eyes, where it would sting for up to hours at a time. Point: cream.

Applying the cream everywhere else, though, was still a drag. It was obviously harder to get to the hard-to-reach spots on my back, and even for my arms and legs I’d be back to the old drill of dribbling a line of the white goop, then becoming intimately familiar with my own anatomy as I repeatedly rubbed my hands up and down my limbs, across my shoulders and neck. It felt a little…I don’t know, masturbatory.

Plus, when the tube ran low, it was worse than extracting toothpaste from a near-empty tube because the sunscreen tube is so elastic. You have to fold it down all the way to the bottom and squeeze, and then while you rub that stuff in, the tube springs right back up. I don’t have to put up with this inconvenience! I’m American!

As to inhaling the sunscreen, I’ve been more careful about that since reading Pastore’s post. I hold my breath for a few seconds after every spray. That seems fine, right? I mean, everyone used to think saccharin killed you, and then it turned out that Sweet & Low was getting a bad rap!

So, sorry: I’ve gone back to buying spray screen, but I also keep a tube of cream on hand. I’ll rub the cream on my face, then I’ll go out and spray the spray. The way I see it, it’s the best of both worlds…and that’s my story.

Jay Gabler