Should you apply sunscreen or moisturizer first? This is the expert-approved order during summer

Dermatologists reveal whether you should apply sunscreen or moisturizer first...

woman applying suncream
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whether you should you apply sunscreen or moisturizer first is a question that (if you're being good with your skincare rules) you're likely met with on a daily basis—not just when you're lapping up the rays on holiday. However, it becomes even more important during summer when you want to ensure your complexion is as hydrated as it is protected.

You're probably already making the effort to include one of the best sunscreens for face in your daily skincare routine (even if you forget now and then), but when layering in combination with your best face moisturizer, it can sometimes feel like you've got something wrong.  So to make sure that you're really getting the most out of both your sunscreen and your moisturizer, we've talked to the experts about what the correct skincare product order really is when it comes to layering these two essential products.

Should you apply sunscreen or moisturizer first? Here's what the experts say...

It turns out that deciding whether to apply sunscreen or moisturizer first actually depends on what type of sunscreen you’re using.

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 (opens in new tab).

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—sunscreen vs sunblock—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.

How to apply moisturizer and sunscreen in the right order—dependant on the sunscreen type

Mineral sunscreen

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 (opens in new tab), a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Phoenix, Arizona. 

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.

Chemical sunscreen

Method 2: Chemical sunscreen first, moisturizer second

On the other hand, chemical sunscreen, like the Kiehl's Ultra Light Daily UV Defense Aqua Gel SPF50, 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 (opens in new tab) 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.

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, even if it's not a sunny day or you'll be spending most of your time inside. 

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 (opens in new tab) 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—even if you're worried about your sunscreen preventing tanning.

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.

Does your sunscreen ever expire?

Yes! Always be sure to check your sunscreen expiration date so that you're not using a product that's lost its potency.

Aleesha Badkar
Aleesha Badkar

Aleesha is deputy editor and beauty & fashion lead for My Imperfect Life, where she heads up the beauty, fashion and eCommerce pages. Previously she was shopping writer for woman&home and gained an AOP awards nomination after working on their news team. She earned an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London in 2017 and has since worked with a number of brands including, Women's Health, Stylist and Goodto. When she’s not testing new products, Aleesha spends her time soaking up the newest bestsellers and Netflix releases, learning about different wines, attempting new languages and travelling as much as she can.