SPF moisturisers do not work as well as sun cream, experts warn

Shocking pictures reveal why women should NOT rely on SPF moisturisers for sun protection: Images show they do not block UV light as well as sunscreen

  • Moisturisers with SPFs are not equal to sunscreens with the same SPF
  • People do not apply moisturisers to all areas or as thickly as sun cream
  • Cosmetic creams don’t absorb as much UV and may not protect against ageing
  • Experts say they are better than nothing but people should use sun cream 

Moisturisers with SPF factors do not offer as much protection from the sun as they claim on the bottle, experts warn.

Face and skin creams labelled with a sun protection factor have become more popular in recent years and could be giving people a false sense of security.

Those who use moisturiser instead of sunscreen before they go out in the sun may not be protecting themselves well from damaging UV rays.

The British Association of Dermatologists has revealed the cosmetic creams do not block UV as well as sunscreen because the SPF is spread more thinly and people don’t apply them as thoroughly. 

Scientists have produced a simple series of photos to explain the difference in sun protection, and warn people not to rely on moisturisers for their sun protection. 

Getting burned by UV rays increases a person’s risk of skin cancer, and around the eyes is a high risk area and also somewhere people struggle to apply protection properly, the study found. 

A UV camera shows the difference in sun protection between sunscreen and moisturiser with the same SPF – the darker the skin appears, the more protection it has from the sun

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Using a camera that only sees UV light, researchers from the University of Liverpool have compared the difference between sun protection from sunscreen and moisturiser.

The way the camera sees means areas which are well protected from UV rays appear darker in the photographs.

In the above image on the left, the woman’s face is covered with SPF30 sun cream – it is well applied and covers almost all her face, and is black in the photo meaning it has absorbed a lot of UV light.

In the right hand image, however, the woman has used an SPF30 moisturiser – she has not applied it as well around the eyes, which are high risk areas for skin cancers.

Her face is also lighter overall, meaning the moisturiser has not stopped UV rays as effectively as the sun cream did.

The research is very easy to understand – the darker the image the more protection 

Austin McCormick, consultant ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon, and one of the researchers, said: ‘This research is very visual and fairly easy for people to understand: the darker the image, the more sun protection people are getting.

‘We expected the area of face covered with moisturiser to be greater than sunscreen, in particular the eyelids because of the perception that moisturiser stings the eyes less than sunscreen. 

‘In fact we found the opposite: the area of the face covered effectively was greater with sunscreen than moisturiser. 

‘In addition, where it was applied, the moisturiser provided less UV protection than sunscreen.

Researchers used a camera which only sees UV light to do the study, so they could analyse the effects of sun light on people’s skin

‘Although skin moisturiser with SPF does provide sun protection, our research suggests that it’s not to the same degree as sunscreen. 

‘Moisturiser is better than no protection at all, but not as good as sunscreen’ 

‘We do recommend moisturisers and makeup that contain UV protection – it is better than no protection at all, but for prolonged periods in the sun we recommend the application of sunscreen with high SPF.’

The study found people missed 16 per cent of their face on average when applying moisturiser, whereas when applying sunscreen this dropped to 11 per cent. 

Coverage was worse when just the high-risk eyelid areas were analysed: sunscreen users missed 14 per cent compared with 21 per cent with moisturiser.

The eyelid area is a common site for skin cancers. 


The British Association of Dermatologists has given four important tips for protecting your and your family’s skin from sun damage: 

1. Spend time in the shade during the sunniest part of the day when the sun is at its strongest, which is usually between 11am and 3pm in the summer months.

2. Avoid direct sun exposure for babies and very young children.

3. When it is not possible to limit your time in the sun, keeping yourself well covered, with a hat, t-shirt, and sunglasses can give you additional protection.

4. Apply sunscreen liberally to exposed areas of skin. Re-apply every two hours and straight after swimming, sweating or towelling to maintain protection. 

Source: The British Association of Dermatologists 

In addition to this, the study suggests that people do not apply the moisturiser as thickly as sunscreen, and therefore do not receive the full benefits of the SPF.  

During the study 46 women and 14 men, all aged between 18 and 57 were asked to apply sun protection then be photographed with the UV camera.

Participants were also asked to rate their own ability to apply the products before and after viewing the images. 

People don’t know they’re applying sun cream badly 

For sunscreen, perceived ability dropped from 90 per cent positive to 42 per cent after seeing the results, and moisturiser from 85 per cent to 38 per cent.

This suggests people are not aware that they aren’t covering all the areas they need to, which could raise the risk of getting burnt. 

Matthew Gass of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: ‘Unfortunately, moisturiser with SPF just doesn’t perform particularly well in real world situations compared to sunscreen. 

‘Although it may say factor 30 on the box, this study is just further evidence that lab testing conditions for these products don’t reflect how they are used.

‘Another important thing to take away from this research is that people often miss areas of their face when applying sun protection.  

People spread moisturiser more thinly so it’s less protective

‘A good way to prevent this from becoming an issue is to wear sunglasses and reapply sunscreen regularly. 

‘This should help protect the bits you miss from being exposed to excessive sun.’

The scientists explain the reason for reduced protection from moisturisers could be that they are applied more thinly. 

So while the SPF factor may be the same as a sun cream under lab conditions, when it is actually on the skin the amount could vary.  

They also note that moisturisers containing an SPF may not contain any UVA protection and as a result will not protect against UV ageing, and are less likely to be rub-resistant and water resistant.  

The study is presented at the British Association of Dermatologists’ Annual Meeting in Edinburgh this week.   

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