Should you use sunscreen or moisturizer first? This is the best routine according to dermatologists

Experts say applying sunscreen or moisturizer first actually depends on the products you’re using.

A collage of a woman in a swimsuit with repetition in different colorways to depict a sunscreen or moisturizer first story
(Image credit: Getty Images / Florence Goupil)

So you’re getting ready for a day out in the sun. You know you need to apply SPF for protection against UV rays, and moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated—but should you apply sunscreen or moisturizer first?

We asked two dermatologists to clear up the order of operations. As it turns out, deciding whether to apply sunscreen or moisturizer first actually depends on what type of sunscreen you’re using.

Before you double-check what’s in that bottle in your beach bag, here’s everything you need to know to keep your skin hydrated and sun-safe the right way, using the best sunscreen for your face and the right routine.

Pay attention to the products and how they absorb (or don’t) 

When you’re putting on moisturizer and sunscreen, “Whichever is applied first will be absorbed the best,” says Dr. Susan Chon, professor, and dermatologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Since moisturizers are designed to help your skin lock in its hydration, it makes sense that you’d want that to soak into your skin more deeply. But you want your sunscreen to absorb just as effectively, right? 

Not necessarily. There are actually two different types of sunscreen—and the order in which you apply them does matter. 

One type is a chemical sunscreen, which works best when it soaks into your skin. The other is physical or mineral sunscreen (also called sunblock), which works best when it sits on the surface of the skin.  

Once you know what type of sunscreen you’re using, the question of whether to put on sunscreen or moisturizer first is actually pretty simple.

A close up of someone squeezing moisturizer from a bottle onto their hands

(Image credit: Getty Images / Jerome Tisne)

How to apply moisturizer and different types of sunscreen in the right order

Method 1: moisturizer first, mineral sunscreen second

If you’re using a mineral-based sunscreen or sunblock, “You should always apply your moisturizer first, then your sunscreen,” says Dr. Chon. This way, “The benefits of your moisturizer, like the antioxidants, will go in well. Then apply your mineral-based sunscreen, which is not absorbed, on top." 

When physical sunscreen goes on last, it can work its magic without any interference. This type of product contains minerals like zinc and titanium dioxide that deflect harmful UV rays before they reach your skin. 

“Physical sunscreens can be applied on top of moisturizers because they act as more of a shield and do not need to be absorbed into the skin to work,” explains Dr. Brooke Jeffy, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Phoenix, AZ. 

In other words, if you’ve heard the old adage about keeping sunscreen “closest to the sun,” this is the right idea if you’re using mineral sunscreen.

Method 2: Chemical sunscreen first, moisturizer second

Chemical sunscreen, on the other hand, tends to be more effective when it has a chance to really soak into your skin. 

As the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) explains, active ingredients such as avobenzone, homosalate, oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene work by soaking up the UV rays, converting that energy into heat, and releasing it before it can penetrate your skin. 

So, if this is your preferred type of sunscreen you’ll want to reach for it first. “Chemical sunscreens should be applied first, with moisturizer on top, because they need to be absorbed by the skin to work,” says Dr. Jeffy. 

A collage of a woman in swimwear applying her sunscreen

(Image credit: Getty Images / Vincent Besnault)

Sun-safe skincare tips to follow

How often should you use sunscreen?

The most important thing to remember is to keep using your sunscreen every day. 

Is there anytime you don't need to apply sunscreen?

Even if you’re just sitting at your desk all day? Even if you’re popping out for errands in the car and running straight indoors? Even if it’s snowing outside your window? Yes, yes, and yes.

Up to 80% of damaging UV rays can still penetrate your skin even when it’s overcast, according to the AAD. Get into the habit of applying sunscreen every day, regardless of the weather.

You might just apply moisturizer to your face on most days. Unless you’re feeling especially dry, there may not be a need to cream up your neck and shoulders on a typical Tuesday morning. But to really keep your skin protected from the sun, you’ll need a different approach to applying SPF. 

Think of sunscreen as a face and body skincare superhero. Be sure to use a sufficient amount across any parts of your body that will be exposed to the sun. Or the shade! Or the clouds! 

How often should you reapply sunscreen?

You might not reapply moisturizer until you reach for your night cream. But the SPF application shouldn’t stop after your morning routine. 

The AAD recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours if you’re outdoors—or more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming.

If you’re fresh-faced, without any other skincare products to get in the way, chemical sunscreen could do the trick while you’re on the go. 

But, if reapplying means you’ll be putting on sunscreen on top of moisturizer (and a few layers of makeup), the product won’t have the chance to absorb deeply into your skin. If that’s the case, use a mineral-based sunscreen to create a protective shield that works as it’s designed to.

My Imperfect Life

The My Imperfect Life team is all about helping you navigate your world. We bring you the latest on fashion, beauty, travel and wellness so you can live life on your terms.