Does Layering SPF Actually Work? A Derm Weighs In

You may feel like applying sunscreen, lotion with SPF, and makeup with SPF would give you a total SPF of over 100. But does layering SPF work? Not exactly, dermatologists say. Read on to learn why.

By now, you’ve heard about how the sun’s harmful UV rays have been linked to everything from sunburn and dark spots to premature aging and even skin cancer, per the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). That hopefully means you’re already arming yourself with all the right sun-protective measures, including, of course, SPF. Luckily, there’s no shortage of sunscreens out there as well as SPF-laden skincare and makeup products that can help shield your skin from the sun. But does layering SPF work? Not exactly, according to professionals. We tapped skin experts to understand the science of SPF and what products and practices should be part of your sun care puzzle. 

What Is SPF, Really?

layering spf

SPF stands for “sun protective factor” and is a measure of how effective sunscreens are in comparison to each other, explains Richard Torbeck, MD, New York City-based dermatologist. “SPF allows for a generalized comparison and a standard to test sunscreens that can give the public an idea of how effective the sunscreen they use is when selecting an option,” he says. “It is also helpful to inform consumers with the type of UV protection it covers, UVA1/2, UVB, and visible light which each can cause different types of cancer or skin reactions.”

Sunscreens with higher SPF offer more protection against a myriad of conditions caused by the sun, but especially skin cancer. Skin cancer can be quite serious and, in fact, deadly, Claire O’Bryan, ANP-C, nurse practitioner and co-founder of The Skin Clique, points out. At least one in five Americans will receive a skin cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

As awareness for sun protection has increased, more companies and more companies have included SPF in their products—from foundation to face lotion to hairspray. With so many SPF-laden products, it can be hard to truly know what amount of protection you’re getting. For instance, if you apply a moisturizer with SPF, then add on a foundation that contains SPF and top it all off with an SPF-containing setting spray, are you getting a ton of SPF coverage once everything’s combined? “Now we know so much more, and I think it’s great SPF is everywhere; however, my only concern is that people don’t get a false sense of protection from products that really have quite a low SPF,” says O’Bryan.

Does Layering SPF Work?

According to O’Bryan, you’re only ever wearing the highest amount of SPF that you put on. For instance, if you apply SPF 50—whether that’s in the form of a lotion, foundation, concealer, or a spray, and then an additional layer of SPF 50—you’ll still have SPF 50. “Nothing changes the SPF number but the amount of active ingredient in the product, she says. “However you will be better protected because you’re less likely to miss any spots with more coats or layers,” she says. 

O’Bryan also points out that while makeup can have an SPF listed, the amount of makeup required to actually achieve that level of SPF is significantly more than anyone would ever use, which means that you’re not really getting the coverage you think you’re getting. “Typically, to reach the SPF advertised in a true makeup product, you would need to use quite a bit of product and most of us are unlikely to do that,” she says. For this reason, she always recommends that her patients use a dedicated SPF (read: an actual sunscreen) underneath any makeup that contains SPF. She also suggests using SPF products that have been specifically designed to mimic makeup while simultaneously protecting you adequately, such as SkinBetter Science’s SPF Compact, which is SPF 68. When used correctly, and provides light coverage while adequately protecting the skin.   

What to Know When Using SPF

Here, skin professionals share their best tips for how to use SPF properly. 

does layering spf work men

Use an SPF of at Least 30

As a general guideline, aim for a sunscreen with at least 30 SPF. “SPF of 30 or higher provides protection starting at 97 percent, which is effective for people of all ethnicities and skin tones,” says Adam Elshafei, MD, board-certified IM/Cosmetic and anti-aging medicine specialist and founder of Aesthetica Rejuvenation Clinic in Chicago, Illinois.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read or Hear

Another important thing to know is that just because something claims to be “waterproof” or “sweatproof” doesn’t mean that it actually is. In fact, Dr. Elshafei points out that manufacturers can no longer advertise sunscreens as waterproof or sweatproof because of this fact, which is why you’re likely to see products labeled as being “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant.” “Water-resistant sunscreen is only effective for up to 40 minutes while in water and very water-resistant sunscreen is effective for up to 80 minutes in water,” he says. 

Apply Enough and Reapply Often

“People generally don’t use enough sunscreen when they’re applying it, so I would say the most important thing is to apply more sunscreen than you think you need and reapply sunscreen every two hours,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, NYC-based dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules. She recommends that those who sweat a lot or are swimming reapply more often than every two hours. 

Use Other Sun Protection

While SPF is a great asset in helping prevent sun damage, there are plenty of other measures that you can take in addition to sunscreen to protect your skin against UV radiation. “Staying cognizant of how long one is exposed to the sun and finding a cool place to let your skin cool down is important,” says Dr. Elshafei. “People should also wear protective clothing such as long-sleeve, thin-material shirts, hats that provide shade to the face, and even sunglasses to reduce the eyes’ sun exposure.”  

Look For Makeup With SPF

Wondering how to use makeup with sunscreen? The best thing you can do is look for makeup with sunscreen that’s easy to apply. Since you’re likely not using enough foundation to get any SPF benefit, try packing a setting powder with SPF to help with re-application throughout the day. Or, if you have drier skin, look for a makeup setting spray with SPF that you can easily spray on throughout the day. 

Of course, the best option is re-applying actual sunscreen. If you’re going to be out in the sun all day but also have makeup on, use a beauty sponge to gently press the sunscreen onto your complexion. It’ll give you extra protection without moving your makeup around.

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