Are you confused about how much sunscreen is enough for your face? Sources give conflicting amounts or ways to measure it (ounces, grams, tablespoons, teaspoons, fingers, coins!!). Then there are the questions about how often to you really need to reapply face sunscreen and how high of an SPF do you need to wear?
You also get mixed information about spray and powder SPFs, sunscreen in makeup or moisturizer, and whether you need SPF in the winter, aren’t really outside much, or are going outside in the morning or late afternoon.
Your face is prime real estate when it comes to skin sun damage. We know that over 80% or more of the signs of skin aging more are due to sun exposure – not your age. - Dr. Bailey
You can prevent and slow facial skin aging by correctly applying sunscreen and using the right sun protection. You can also lower your risk of getting skin cancer on your face by sun protecting your skin – but what exactly does that mean?
There are so many questions about facial sunscreen that I’m going to break this down into practical tips and give you the right answers. Know too that your skin will ultimately tell you if you are doing a good job sun protecting it –
- tan, burn and darker freckles equal a fail,
- no tan, burn and darkening of freckles equal a win!
Exactly how much sunscreen to use on your face according to a dermatologist
The AAD recommend 2mg per square centimeter of body surface area per application of sunscreen. That number is not a helpful guide so let me break it down for your face.
We start with 2 mg per square centimeter because this dose is how SPF is tested.
For the average adult size body (aged 14 or more up to 176lbs), this equates to a shot glass of sunscreen, which is 1 ounce, to cover the human body skin surface area at 2mg of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin surface.
Doing the math on this using the body surface area Wallace Rule of 9s (a calculation method used to determine percent of skin injured in a burn unit!) we find that:
- The total surface area of the front and back of the head and neck is 9% of the body surface.
- The front of the face and neck are 4.5%. 4.5% of 1 ounce is ¼ teaspoon.
1/4 teaspoon is enough sunscreen for your face and the front of your neck for most people.
How much sunscreen do you need on the face in teaspoons?
You need a generous ¼ teaspoon of sunscreen for your face, the front of your neck, your ears and the little space behind your ears in front of your hairline. Use more if you have a high forehead or large face.
To be safe, aim for between ¼ and ½ teaspoon of sunscreen for your face/neck/ears. This is sufficient for most people. - Dr. Bailey
Pro-tip #1: you see recommendations ranging from ¼ tsp to ½ tsp for the ‘face’. I believe the confusion is due to ‘experts’ not realizing that the Wallace Rule of 9s defines the front and back of the head and neck as 9%. People forget that the surface area of the face and front of the neck is only half of that and thus 4.5%.
Pro-tip #2: You won’t always have a ¼ teaspoon with you so go look at one now. Put it in your cupped palm and figure out how much area in your cupped palm fits 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon. Memorize the size. That’s your hack for applying sunscreen at the beach or any time you don’t have a ¼ teaspoon around.
How many TBS (tablespoons) of sunscreen to use on the face?
There are 3 tsp in a TBS. The math ends up at 1/12 a TBS of sunscreen per application.
You need 1/12 of a Tablespoon of sunscreen for your face.
The Tablespoon is the big spoon in the measuring spoon picture above. I cook a lot and even I don’t find this useful. I recommend you stick with the ¼ to ½ teaspoon of sunscreen for your face, ears and the front of your neck.
How much sunscreen to use on the face in ml (milliliters)?
You need a generous 1.2 ml of sunscreen or your face and the front of your neck. This is because ¼ teaspoon equals 1.23ml. Again, if your forehead is high or face is large, use more.
I recommend using 1.25 to 2.5 ml of sunscreen for your face/ears and the front of your neck depending on the size of your face and neck.
Be sure to apply sunscreen to your ears daily.
Pro-tip: Metric measurements are more precise than teaspoons in my opinion. If you have a ml measure and prefer thinking metric, go see how much of your cupped palm fits 1.25-2.5 ml and memorize it.
Apply a nickel size dollop of sunscreen to your face alone. Use another nickel for your neck, ears and behind your ears.
Some people prefer this measurement. I find it problematic because product consistency determines how thick that ‘nickel size dollop’ will be. I also think the coins have gotten mixed up because I see people recommending that you apply a quarter size dollop. That said, The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends this measure and it works visually for some folks.
Apply one-finger lengths of sunscreen to your face.
You will see the 'finger length' measure of facial sunscreen trick mentioned as 'two finger lengths'.
The amount of sunscreen applied along your index and middle finger from palm to fingertip is sufficient to cover your entire head, neck and face. This is 9% of your body surface area.
If you have no hair and need to cover your entire head and neck, use 2 fingers.
If you are just covering your face and the front of your neck, that’s 4.5% and you can use 1 finger length. Again, I think experts have given quantities for the entire head and neck. The two-finger rule is for a 9% body surface area, of which there are actually 11!
This ‘finger’ sunscreen application dosage method was developed in Australia in 2002 and applies to cream and ointment products. Remember, the size of your sunscreen applicator and the product's consistency will determine the size of that squeeze and I find it unreliable. Again, I prefer the ¼ teaspoon measurement.
How much SPF sunscreen to use on face?
Dermatologists recommend using an SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum sunscreen on your face.
Look for the words ‘broad-spectrum’ to indicate that the UV protection includes both UVA and UVB rays.
- UVB rays are the strong summer/mid-day sunburn ray.
- UVA accounts for over 90-99% of UV rays that reach you here on earth depending on your location and the season.
All of my pure mineral Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreens provide broad-spectrum protection against UVA with SPF 30 or higher values.
Why is it important to use face sunscreen that blocks UVA?
- UVA is essentially as strong in winter as it is in summer, and in morning versus at noon.
- UVA comes through glass.
- UVA rays are longer than UVB and so they penetrate deeply into your skin to cause premature skin aging and skin thinning.
Do you need a face SPF higher than 30?
- Know that an SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and
- SPF 50 blocks 98%.
That’s pretty much the same. We recommend an SPF 30 or higher.
I don’t ever recommend using sunscreen lower SPF than 30. - Dr. Bailey
How to apply sunscreen to your face correctly, according to a dermatologist
Here is the step-by-step process of applying sunscreen to your face correctly:
- Wash your face and apply any skin care products before you apply your sunscreen.
- Apply a generous ¼ tsp to ½ tsp of SPF 30 Broad Spectrum sunscreen to your face and the front of your neck.
- Rub in the sunscreen until it covers all of your skin evenly.
- Work the sunscreen into your hairline to protect that exposed skin.
- Apply sunscreen to your ears – the front and back and the little triangle behind your ear up to the hairline.
- Makeup is applied on top of sunscreen.
Why is sunscreen applied after your other skin care products?
Because they need to absorb into your skin. Sunscreen binds to outer dead skin cells on the top layer of your skin.
- Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge there, absorbing the sun’s rays.
- Mineral sunscreens sit on top of your skin acting like a shield.
Why is makeup applied on top of sunscreen?
Makeup would smear if you applied sunscreen on top. It is best to apply your makeup over your sunscreen.
How do you reapply sunscreen on your face if you wear makeup?
You can use a powder sunscreen to reapply SPF over makeup to prevent smearing your makeup. This is the beauty of powder sunscreens.
I don’t recommend using powder sunscreen as your primary sunscreen because it’s impossible to know that you have the ¼ tsp or more of product for your face in the brush applicators that powder SPF products are dispensed in. But they are a great tool to reapply sunscreen over makeup. - Dr. Bailey
My Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 30 Refresh Powder Sunscreen is what I consider the perfect solution to facial sunscreen reapplication over makeup. The tinting technology works well for almost all skin pigment tone. It also contains over 3.2% iron oxide to block visible and blue light from your devices. These visible and blue rays can worsen skin pigment problems and also cause some skin damage.
Is sunscreen in your makeup enough?
Sunscreen SPF in makeup range from 4 to 30. I don't recommend using sunscreen lower than 30. Plus,
- Are you certain that the SPF in your makeup is labeled ‘broad-spectrum’? This is important to protect your face from sun damage.
- Most importantly, are you going to apply the requisite ¼ tsp of makeup with an SPF 30 and is it giving you broad spectrum UV protection?
Typically, the answer to both questions in ‘no’.
But, if you apply makeup, especially mineral makeup over sunscreen, you get added protection. That’s because most makeup is opaque and will block some UV. Mineral makeup particles help to block and scatter some UV rays, though they typically are not SPF rated (an expensive FDA regulated process).
I recommend using mineral makeup with iron oxide because iron oxide also protects skin from visible light rays (yes these are different than UV rays) that can darken pigment problems such as melasma. Mineral makeup typically is pigmented with iron oxide so look at a products ingredient list to see.
My mineral makeup includes iron oxide. So does my SPF 30 Powder Refresh Sunscreen that can double as mineral makeup and blends well into most skin color tones.
I recommend mineral makeup powders with iron oxide be applied on top of your SPF 30+ facial sunscreen for the best protection to fight skin aging.
Will moisturizer with SPF protect your skin?
Typically, no. Most people don’t use enough moisturizer and apply it evenly over their face to get adequate protection. I recommend that you use the right moisturizer to keep your skin well hydrated and apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher mineral zinc oxide sunscreen on top.
How much face sunscreen do you really need to apply every day?
The reality is that few adults apply facial sunscreen every day but you need to because this is job security for derms and leads to sun damaged skin.
Apply ¼ tsp of sunscreen to your face, the front of your neck and your ears every day and you stop 80% of your facial skin aging.
Find a sunscreen you love and just do it - it eventually becomes easy.
What about continuous spray sunscreen for your face, is it OK?
Spray sunscreens should never be sprayed on the face. You don’t want to inhale the active or inactive ingredients into your highly absorbent lungs.
Other drawbacks of spray sunscreens:
- It’s hard to know that you have applied the right amount of sunscreen when it is sprayed on the skin.
- Spray sunscreen layers on your skin in droplets and you must smear and blend the droplets for uniform coverage.
The FDA has said that spray sunscreens need further evaluation to determine if they are GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective).
What about daily use of sunscreen on the chest/decolletage?
It is really important to protect the ‘V’ of your chest from sun damage to prevent developing deep vertical chest wrinkles, sunspots, and the discoloration of red and brown mottling called Poikiloderma of Civatte. These skin changes are due to sun damage not age, and they are hard to fix once they start.
Here is my 62-year-old skin covered in sunscreen. I've protected my chest from the sun for the last 30 years and it's made a difference that matters to me. Yes, I'm showing off in the hopes that it will give you confidence that this is all worth it.
How much sunscreen should you apply on your chest?
The short answer is that I recommend another ¼ to 1/8 tsp because, depending on the neckline of your shirt or dress, the surface area could be about the same size as your face and neck. It could also be half that if you are wearing a button up shirt open at the top. Thus, look at your exposed skin surface area compared to your face and neck to figure it out.
- Using the Wallace Rule of 9s, the skin of your chest down to the lower ribs is 9%.
- It is about 4.5% to the nipples of the breasts on a man. You are probably exposing less than this 4.5% surface area.
How often do you need to reapply sunscreen to your face?
The two rules of facial sunscreen reapplication:
- You must reapply sunscreen every 2 hours during continuous exposure.
- You also need to reapply after sweating/swimming/wiping off product.
Yes, it’s inconvenient but true. Even when you are not outside, know that your sunscreen is migrating on your skin and your coverage is lessening as product migrates into folds and expression lines. This means that if you apply sunscreen in the morning, spend the day mostly in the office but plan to step outside into the sunlight at the end of your day – you need to reapply facial sunscreen to be protected. This is where Powder sunscreen is really handy.
Pro-tips for sun safety: Don’t just think of getting your sun protection from sunscreen. Use a combination strategy to keep UV rays off of and out of your skin.
Start first by covering as much skin as you can with clothing.
Consider wearing a higher neckline or collar shirt that helps protect your neck and a hat that covers your forehead. (For example, I rarely wear that pretty shirt in direct sun showing off my hard-earned spotless skin. I had on layers of sunscreen to protect my skin from the risk!! I also usually wear a hat.)
Then A.S.K. if the rest of your skin is protected:
The pneumonic of A.S.K.is how I teach sun protection:
A: Apply a good SPF 30+ sunscreen at the start of every day and reapply it when outdoors for extended times.
Chose a product with 5% or more zinc oxide for the most durable protection. Be sure you love your sunscreen so that you use it daily. If that means you need to splurge on a product with a great look and feel on your skin, this is the skin care product to do that.
S: Shade your skin to prevent UV rays from a direct hit on your skin. Be in the shade or create shade for your face with a brimmed hat that has a full circumference 3-to-5-inch brim.
Shade augments the protection of your sunscreen because every UV ray kept off of your sunscreen means your sunscreen’s protection will last longer (UV rays break down sunscreen molecules ).
K: Know the intensity of your sun exposure and ramp up your protection accordingly. For example:
- On a beach in the middle of a summer day on the equator, with intense and reflected UV rays coming off the sand, you need to strictly follow the sunscreen reapplication rules.
- If you are swimming or sweating, you need a water-resistant sunscreen that you reapply diligently.
- In winter, when you applied your facial sunscreen in the morning, you’ve spent most of the day indoors and are stepping out in the late afternoon, you may need just a dusting of SPF Powder to protect your skin.
Author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D. is a Board-Certified dermatologist practicing dermatology since 1987. She has done well over 200,000 skin exams during her career and authors the longest running physician written skin health blog in the world.
“I love empowering people to take good care of their skin by educating them and putting the ‘self-care’ into their skin care so that they love the skin they’re in!” Dr. Bailey