Are spray-on sunscreens safe?

At this point there’s very little debate as to whether sunscreen is necessary to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Exposing the skin to sunlight can result in sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. With the introduction of sunscreen in a can in the 90s, on-the-go sun worshippers delighted in a new, easy-to-apply product that allowed them to put it on quickly and easily. Since then, its popularity has only increased — particularly with parents looking to avoid the struggle of rubbing lotion onto impatient children. But do the potential health hazards of this modern convenience outweigh its benefits?

The danger of breathing nanoparticles

Most sunscreens — including the spray-on kind — contain small particles of two minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which reflect the sun’s harmful rays. The tiny bits, referred to as nanoparticles, are considered safe and effective when applied to the skin. But when inhaled, these nanoparticles have a tendency to stay inside the lungs where they can cause respiratory problems including allergic reactions and asthma. They can also pass from the lungs into the bloodstream and cause damage to other organs as well.

Canned sunscreens emit these nanoparticles into the air each time they are sprayed, harming the air quality of not only their users, but also those around them. Unfortunately, clouds of sunscreen drifting on the breeze are all too common in places such as parks and beaches across America these days. And while you may have been careful to hold your breath while you sprayed it, the child with asthma having a coughing fit downwind from you probably wasn’t.

Additional concerns

Besides possible damaging effects on the lungs, spray-on sunscreens may not be the best choice for other reasons as well. Adequate coverage can be an issue, especially in windy conditions and when users spray the product on themselves. Since the spray goes on clear, they may not know they’ve “missed a spot” until they get home and discover the telltale red blotches and streaks of sunburn.

Even more troubling, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that since spray-on sunscreens contain flammable ingredients such as alcohol, they have the potential to catch fire — even after they’ve been applied. The FDA reports at least five incidents of people being burned after using spray-on sunscreen. In one case the applied sunscreen was reportedly ignited by a lit citronella candle and, in another case, by a barbecue grill.

Better safe than sorry

So while they’re quick and convenient, their potential for trouble suggests that spray-on sunscreens aren’t the safest option — in more ways than one. Instead, good old-fashioned topical lotions, as well as sticks and gels, are the safest way to go.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, everyone should wear sunscreen, each time they go out in the sun, and the following guidelines should be followed whenever it’s applied:

  1. 1. Choose a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30.These sunscreens will block 97% of both the sun’s ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, both of which can damage skin.
  2. 2. Use one ounce to cover all exposed areas 15 minutes before going outdoors.That’s enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass. Make putting on sunscreen part of your daily routine before leaving the house each day.
  3. 3. Reapply!Repeat the process every two hours, and after swimming or sweating.
  4. 4. Use it every day.On cloudy days, up to 80% of the sun’s harmful rays can still reach the skin.

For more information on sunscreens and how to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, visit the American Academy of Dermatology at

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