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We Ask a Derm: Is Sunscreen Oil Safe to Use on Our Skin?

We find out how it stacks up against other formulas.

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Here at PureWow, we don’t mess around when it comes to sunscreen. Whether it’s comparing physical vs. chemical formulas or testing various SPF sprays and powders, we’re all about protecting our skin in whatever ways we can. So when we started hearing chatter about sunscreen oils, we reached out to a few of our derm friends to explain what they are, how they work and whether they're safe to use on our skin.

Meet the Experts:

  • Dr. Blair Murphy Rose is a board-certified dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center in New York. She has six years of experience, specializing in cosmetic, medical and surgical dermatology. Dr. Murphy is also a clinical instructor of dermatology for Weill Cornell Medical Center, where she previously did her surgical internship. 
  • Dr. Marisa Garshick is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York. She's also an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell New York Presbyterian Medical Center. She specializes in cosmetic and medical services including treatments for acne, psoriasis, skin cancer, wrinkles and more.
  • Dr. Brendan Camp is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. He specializes in treating conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, moles and skin cancer. He also does cosmetic treatments such as Botox, lasers and the use of rejuvenation devices.

What Is Sunscreen Oil?

Sunscreen oils are a type of chemical-based sunscreen that—you guessed it—have an oily base that make it easier to spread on your skin and won't leave a whitecast. They tend to have hydrating ingredients in them and often have a lighter texture than many lotions and creams. 

Is Tanning Oil the Same As Sunscreen Oil?

“The two are very different! Tanning oils are made to increase the sun’s ability to darken your skin, while sunscreen oils are made to protect your skin from UV light,” says Dr. Rose. While some tanning oils may contain levels of SPF, most of the time they offer little to no protection. To sum, tanning oils focus more on accelerating your tan, whereas sunscreen oils are made to protect your skin from the sun.

What Are the Benefits of Sunscreen Oil?

Look, sunscreen oils aren’t so different from your other sunscreens. Here, we found four main benefits that might steer you towards using one. 

  • It protects your skin. “Most sunscreen oils provide additional antioxidant benefits to fight free radical damage along with SPF to protect from sun damage,” says Dr. Rose. 
  • It’s easy to apply. The lightweight formula glides smoothly onto the skin without needing to spend too much time rubbing it in. The oily texture also melts right into the skin for dewy results. 
  • It doesn’t leave a white cast. Two words: Invisible application. “Some sunscreen products, like mineral sunscreens, can leave a white residue on the skin after application. Sunscreen oils offer a sheer and glowy finish instead,” says Dr. Camp. The clear formula also makes it a game changer for darker skin tones, as many regular sunscreens can leave chalky streaks behind. 
  • It helps hydrate the skin. Sunscreen oils often contain moisturizing ingredients like aloe vera, argan oil, grapeseed oil and coconut oil, which aim to hydrate and soften the skin. This can be especially nice after a long day spent in and out of the water. 

What Are the Downsides of Sunscreen Oil?

One downside is that it doesn’t play well with other products. You’ll want to avoid applying a water- or silicone-based moisturizer or serum before using sunscreen oil. When mixed together, it has a tougher time absorbing into your skin, which can hinder its ability to protect you against the sun. 

Does Sunscreen Oil Actually Work? 

Yes, according to the FDA, sunscreen oils are considered GRAS (short for “genuinely recognized as safe and effective”), so it’s suitable to use on your skin. All three derms highly recommend using an SPF 30 or higher and reapplying it throughout the day.

How Often Should You Apply Sunscreen Oil?

Our panel of experts (and the American Academy of Dermatology) recommend applying sunscreen oil 15 to 20 minutes prior to sun exposure. Since it's a chemical-based product, you want to give it time to absorb into your skin so it can effectively shield against the sun. Once you’re outdoors, they suggest reapplying it every two hours (and more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating). 

Who Should Use Sunscreen Oil? 

Our experts say it’s great for dry skin. “Sunscreen oils are especially good for those with dry skin, as they help to nourish the skin, leaving it feeling softer and smoother,” says Dr. Garshick. However, those with oily skin should proceed with caution. “Sunscreen oil can make the skin appear shinier and it’s more likely to clog the pores,” she adds. Instead reach for sunscreen lotions and sprays, as they are less heavy on the skin. 

In conclusion, as long as you follow the same recommendations for application (and reapplication), sunscreen oils are just as effective as other types of SPF and can be a great addition to your skincare routine. 

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Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...