Mineral sunscreens have come a long way. Thanks to recent technological advances, the newest formulas no longer feel thick and heavy on the skin, nor do they leave that dreaded white cast.
But there's one thing that the sunscreen formulators haven't solved for us yet. Even with the best mineral sunscreen, we still need to re-apply it every two hours during direct sun exposure in order to stay protected—and to avoid sunburns, skin cancer and premature aging.
That's where powder sunscreen can come in handy. In this tutorial, you will learn:
- What it is, and 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," and it looks, feels and applies like a loose powder or powder foundation. But rather than just mattifying or perfecting your skin, it's also giving you sun protection.
Like any other sunscreen, it has a sun protection factor (SPF) on the label, which can range from SPF 20 to as high as SPF 50. You'll also see one or more active ingredients, which are the exact same ones that are found in mineral-based lotions and creams:
- Zinc oxide: Out of all the UV filters we have available here in North America, zinc oxide is the single most effective. That's because it gives you extensive protection against both UVA (the aging rays) and UVB (the burning rays).
- Titanium dioxide: While it's not so great on its own, titanium dioxide is effective in tandem with zinc oxide. It provides extensive protection from UVB, but only partial protection from UVA, so it always needs to be combined with a stronger UVA filter.
As minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide already exist in powder form. (So, to make a "wet" sunscreen, they have to be evenly dispersed throughout a liquid.)
For powder SPFs, the minerals are typically mixed with ingredients like mica, silica, iron oxides and emollients. This allows them to reflect light or mattify, to deliver pigment and most importantly, to properly adhere to your skin.
Powder Sunscreen Benefits
Here are all the reasons to love this type of sunscreen:
1. It Looks and Feels Invisible:
Unlike regular sunscreen, powder 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.
2. It’s 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 that 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, re-application is quick and easy. You can just dust it on throughout the day, right over your makeup. How convenient is that?
3. It’s Portable:
Each tube of powder SPF comes with a built-in, self-dispensing brush, so it couldn't be easier to use when you're 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.
4. It’s Good for Sensitive Skin:
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are already known to be gentle on sensitive skin. But powders have another advantage over "wet" sunscreens, because they tend to be formulated with fewer inactive ingredients. For example, since they're water-free, powders may need lower amounts of preservatives, or even none at all. The fewer ingredients you're putting on your skin, the less potential for a reaction.
5. It Won’t Clog Pores:
Powders are almost always non-comedogenic. Rather than sinking into your skin (and pores!), they stay on the skin surface, with a dry texture. So they're especially well-suited to acne-prone skin. Just remember to keep your brushes clean so that you're not transferring unwanted bacteria.
6. It’s Not Just for Your Face:
While powder may be impractical to use all over the body, it's ideal for areas like your chest, neck, ears and hands, which are often forgotten. It's also a great way to protect your scalp without making your hair limp and greasy. Simply brush it down your part and along your hairline.
Does Powder Sunscreen Work?
So, is powder sunscreen actually effective?
While it has been proven to help shield skin from UV rays, it is best used in addition to a regular cream or lotion sunscreen—not in place of it. That's because, practically speaking, most of us probably won't get perfect coverage with our powder application techniques.
Since powder is so light and invisible on the skin, it's all too easy to miss a spot. You also need to apply the powder very 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 formula over a cream or lotion one, you're getting the best of both worlds. Apply a good mineral sunscreen in the morning, and then use your powder 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 powders, 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 SPF 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.
The good news is that 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:
1. Apply a Base Layer of Sunscreen Lotion or Cream:
After you've cleansed your skin and applied any treatments or moisturizers, 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, co-founder of The Sunscreen Company. For product suggestions, see my guides to the best mineral sunscreens and the best zinc oxide sunscreens.
2. Apply Makeup (If You Wear It):
Any skin makeup that you like to wear—such as concealer, foundation, tinted moisturizer, BB cream or CC cream—can come next. Or, you can simply sweep your powder SPF right over your initial layer of sunscreen.
3. Apply Powder Sunscreen to Dry Skin:
Now you're ready for your powder, but make sure your skin is dry to the touch. If it's wet or damp, you could get a streaky application and your protection won't be as effective. Tap the built-in brush to check that the powder is flowing. Then, sweep it over your skin using small circular motions. The folks at Colorescience recommend doing at least two passes over the skin for adequate protection.
4. 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.
5. Re-Apply Every Two Hours:
As with other sunscreens, powder formulas are meant to be re-applied every two hours when you're getting sun exposure. Fortunately, that's as easy as dusting on another layer!
The Best Powder Sunscreens for Your Skin
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 offers an incredibly high level of protection, thanks to 22.5% 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.
Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Powder SPF 30
Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Powder SPF 30 gives you an impressive 20% zinc oxide and 17.29% titanium dioxide in one translucent, mattifying shade. It's also silicone-free, with chamomile to soothe your skin, silica to tame shine and vitamin E to counteract free radicals.
Supergoop! (Re)setting 100% Mineral Powder SPF 35 PA+++
Supergoop! (Re)setting 100% Mineral Powder SPF 35 PA+++ reduces unwanted shine as it protects your skin with 24.7% zinc oxide. It's also low in silicone, and boosted by ceramides and olive glycerides to counteract dryness. There are three tints to choose from, along with a translucent version.
Colorescience Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush
Colorescience Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush is a translucent, non-tinted formula specifically made for oily and acne-prone skin. It protects with 21% zinc oxide while absorbing excess oil and minimizing the look of large pores.
Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense
Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense is an affordable option with a generous 20% zinc oxide and 17.3% titanium dioxide. It also contains mica, silica, fractionated coconut oil and vitamin E, and comes in one translucent matte shade to match all skin tones.
ILIA Radiant Translucent Powder SPF 20
ILIA Radiant Translucent Powder SPF 20 is a weightless, skin-perfecting powder infused with 14% zinc oxide to counteract UV rays. It's talc-free, and made with non-drying corn starch and aloe to soften skin and blur imperfections.
Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45
Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 45 is a finely-milled finishing powder that wards off UV rays with 19.6% zinc oxide and 20.75% titanium dioxide. It has no tint—it just coats skin in a mattifying veil with no cakey residue.
Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30
Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 gives you a long duration of water-resistance (up to 80 minutes) while protecting with 12% zinc oxide and 15% titanium dioxide. Choose from the original formula, which is translucent, or Touch of Tan, which has a warm tint.
Tarte SEA Set & Protect Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 30
Tarte SEA Set & Protect Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 30 is formulated with 10% zinc oxide and 8.6% titanium dioxide, and promises to set your makeup in place for up to 12 hours. It goes on translucent, and has a light, natural vanilla scent.
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