Are Sunscreen Sticks Effective? Here’s What You Need to Know Before Using One

Photo: Stocksy / Studio Firma
I've had beef with sunscreen sticks since my mom relentlessly applied heavy, tacky zinc formulas to my face as a toddler. (This still haunts me.) But I understand this may be a controversial opinion. After all, countless beauty brands—ranging from drugstore to luxury—carry stick sunscreen. However, I've posed a question to some of my go-to dermatologist sources, secretly hoping to sway you all to the liquid sunscreen camp. (We're happier here!) The query: Are stick sunscreens truly as effective as traditional liquid formulations, or is their efficacy straight-up overhyped?

What is a sunscreen stick?

A sunscreen stick is exactly what it sounds like: a solid form of sunscreen that typically comes in a pretty twist-up tube. Both solid and liquid sunscreens contain the same active ingredients, such as avobenzone and octocrylene, for skin protection against UV rays. Their main differences come down to their formulation. Sunscreen sticks contain waxes and gelling agents to maintain their solid structure, explains Pagán and King. As a comparison, Pagán says it's similar to the difference between a liquid lipstick and a bullet lipstick.

Experts In This Article

Are sunscreen sticks as effective as liquid sunscreen?

The answer to this question is nuanced because it hinges on whether you apply it correctly. Dr. Mesinkovska says that while stick sunscreens can, in theory, "provide adequate coverage if the proper amount is applied," the challenge lies in the fact that there's no clear visual indicator of its quantity. "The recommended amount of sunscreen to use is 2mg per square cm of skin, which equates to approximately a quarter of a teaspoon," the expert explains. "While this amount is fairly easy to estimate and visualize using liquid sunscreens, it can be difficult when using a stick sunscreen." 

"Because of this, most users will not get the recommended coverage using a stick sunscreen even with multiple passes or layers over the face to achieve the full SPF coverage value as indicated on the product," Dr. Mesinkovska continues. The expert notes that you need to apply a "considerable amount" to hit that optimal 2 mg mark. "For the average user who applies stick sunscreens using just a few passes, it is unlikely that they will receive full coverage compared to a liquid sunscreen."

Pagán seconds Dr. Mesinkovska’s point. "The biggest benefit of liquid sunscreen is you can guarantee you will apply enough to get the advertised protection," he explains. Since sunscreen is dosage-based, you must apply a set amount to replicate the amount used in testing to obtain the advertised SPF value. This isn't necessarily guaranteed with sticks, as you have to be very generous, and measuring exact amounts is difficult." 

Many people struggle to gauge the right amount of sunscreen, especially with non-liquid forms like sticks. "With non-liquid sunscreen technologies, including sticks, powders, and sprays, people often use less product and fail to cover all services," says Dr. Collins. "So, while the sunscreen itself is just as effective [as liquid sunscreen], the application is often not as thorough or dense as with liquid because people are forced to rub it in."

And then there's the fact that using a considerable amount might feel kinda gross on your skin, like those haunting memories from my youth. If you're determined to reap UV protection from a sunscreen stick over a liquid formula, "be prepared to feel a thick layer of sunscreen on the face," Dr. Mesinkovska warns. "It will most likely not be as comfortable and practical for daily use as liquid sunscreens." 

Benefits of sunscreen sticks

Despite Dr. Mesinkovska's points, she acknowledges some advantages of stick formulations: they're mess-free, spill-proof, and easy to reapply. Pagán adds that they're also often water and sweat-resistant, which is a plus. Dr. Collins has observed among her patients that certain demographics favor sunscreen sticks. "I find that my male patients, as well as my kids, are much more willing to use a sunscreen stick than a typical lotion," she explains. "I also think that because of the portability and ease of use, people are much more likely to take a stick on the go and actually reapply."

While Dr. Collins appreciates stick sunscreens for how easy they are to use, she acknowledges that they might be better suited for touch-ups. "It's probably true that most people would benefit from an initial sunscreen application using a liquid sunscreen and then use of the stick to reapply throughout the day," she says. 

How to apply a sunscreen stick

Ultimately, follow the steps outlined on your specific product's packaging. But as a general overview, Dr. Lal suggests "applying two to three layers broadly over the skin," then rubbing it into your skin like a traditional liquid sunscreen. 

Final takeaway

All dermatologists consulted for this piece unanimously agree that the best sunscreen for you is the one you'll actually use consistently. If that happens to be a stick sunscreen, fine! Just be sure to apply it thoroughly. Otherwise, opt for a liquid formula. Your skin will thank you for it.

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