Sunscreen face washes are a thing. But do they actually provide the SPF protection they promise?

By Jenna Birch
Updated July 01, 2016
Credit: Getty Images

Few skincare steps are as tiresome as sunscreen application—so much so that plenty of us just skip it, much to the dismay of dermatologists everywhere. That's why beauty bloggers have been abuzz in the last year over a technology that promises to make SPF application faster and easier: wash-on sunscreen.

Sunscreen cleansers have been available for several years, but the specific product everyone's talking about is Dr. Russo Sun Protective Day Cleanser SPF 30. The sell: simply wash your face with the $75 cleanser, and you'll get SPF 30 protection from the sun's dangerous UVA and UVB rays. How? The company says the active ingredients octocrylene, oxtinonate, and avobenzone stay put on skin after you wash the cleanser away, leaving behind a layer of UV protection.

The product was originally launched in Europe, which has a more extensive list of approved sun-protection chemicals than the United States. Now, the company markets the cleanser as "FDA approved," though the wash-on method itself is not what the FDA approves—just the ingredients in the product.

So the tech behind sunscreen cleansers hasn't gotten the FDA greenlight in terms of skin protection, and it seems too good to be true anyway, right? Maybe not. Dendy Engelman, MD, a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City says these products may be a worthy addition to your skincare regimen. (Dr. Engelman has no affiliation with Dr. Russo.) Typical sunscreens have active ingredients that act as a protective layer on the skin to deflect the rays that might otherwise cause UV damage. Wash-on sunscreens work a little differently. As you wash with the cleanser, the active ingredients bind to and remain on the top layer of skin to absorb UV rays before they reach your face.

Dr. Engelman is interested in the technology, especially if it means more people will be using SPF. “There has been an increasing number of studies that show how damaging UV rays can be,” says Dr. Engelman, pointing to a 2015 Yale University study published in the Journal of Science showing skin damage caused by UV rays can continue for hours after you leave the sun. “As a dermatologist, I am all for more ways we can incorporate sunscreen into our regimen, because sun protection is so important.”

Still, although it can't hurt to use a sunscreen cleanser, it should not replace your regular old sunscreen, Dr. Engelman says. You still need to slather on traditional SPF to ensure you're protected.

Gary Goldenberg, MD, a dermatologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, agrees. “Although the technology sounds interesting and advanced, I would still recommend a sunscreen lotion or cream,” he says.

For both Dr. Engelman and Dr. Goldenberg, user error is the main concern—it's too easy to do something that will reduce the wash-on sunscreen’s protection. “Theoretically, the technology works, but the trick is letting the product sit long enough on your face for it to be absorbed,” Dr. Engelman explains. The cleanser needs to be massaged into the skin for two full minutes to be effective, so a cursory scrub and rinse won't do. “It is also tricky, because after you use the cleanser, you can’t do anything that will risk removing the sunscreen layer like rubbing, using toners, acidic lotions, or anything exfoliating.” Even widely used sunscreen sprays and creams are prone to user errors like missing sections of skin or rubbing it off before it fully dries.

The bottom line: SPF cleansers may provide an extra layer of sun protection, but only if you also apply an additional layer of traditional sunscreen. Cleansers shouldn't be considered a go-to for all-day sun protection.

“For the wash-and-go type, or if you're spending a lazy day indoors with minimal sun, the sunscreen cleanser is a great idea to add an additional layer of protection to prevent incidental sun damage,” Dr. Engelman says. “I look forward to seeing more studies on the effectiveness of this application method — but for now, I am leaning towards being more cautious and will say to stick with sunscreens that don’t wash off.”​