Sunscreen is an integral part of a skin care regimen, and one of the most critical jobs is to find the best one for your skin with excellent SPF and UVA and UVB blocking actions. (1)
But when you find a great sunscreen, the choice comes between gel-based or cream-based formulations.
Gels are water-based, (2) whereas creams are oil or water-based or a mixture of both. (3) The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using cream-based sunscreen for dry skin and gel-based sunscreen for oily, acne-prone skin. (4)(5)
Continue reading to learn more about gel-based and cream-based sunscreens.
The Effectiveness of Gel and Cream Sunscreens: Scientific Evidence
Gel sunscreen is water based and less greasy, whereas cream sunscreen is oil based and greasy. However, gel sunscreen can get easily removed by water or sweat. (6)
A 2019 research reported a gel sunscreens have better stability. (8) However, based on market research, cream-based sunscreen is preferred over gel-based ones, as the latter is costly and not sold widely. (9)
Caution: Gel sunscreens tend to cause eye and facial stinging. (2)
Differences Between Gel and Cream Sunscreens
|Gel-Based Sunscreen||Cream-Based Sunscreen|
|It provides sun protection.||It provides sun protection.|
|It is water based. (2)||It is oil based or water based (or an emulsion of both). (3)|
|It is less greasy.||It is greasier.|
|It can easily be removed by sweat and water. (6)||It doesn’t get easily removed.|
The following are the differences between gel and cream sunscreens.
Cream sunscreens are suitable for dry, sensitive skin and face application. (4)
Gel-based sunscreens have a fluid texture, are lightweight, and are easy to apply and spread. They spread effortlessly on the skin and are suitable for topical application. (10)
Cream-based sunscreens have a rich and thick texture and take a long time to be absorbed.
Gel sunscreens have a water-based formulation and are absorbed easily into the skin.
Cream sunscreens have an oil-based formulation with a thicker consistency and take longer to absorb. (3)
Gel sunscreen’s water-based formulation doesn’t leave any white cast on the skin.
Cream sunscreen’s active ingredients may leave a white cast on the skin. (11)
According to the researchers, topical gel application has better stability than cream. (8)
Applying sunscreen regularly is essential irrespective of the type.
Gel sunscreens need frequent application, especially if you come in contact with water or sweat. (6)
Regular application of cream sunscreen is imperative for adequate sun protection. Its moisturizing properties keep it longer on the skin. However, re-application every 2 hours is crucial if you swim, sweat, or come in contact with water.
Consistency and texture
Gel sunscreen has a special texture and consistency. It is less dense and lighter than lotion and cream sunscreens. Gel sunscreen is absorbed quickly without leaving any greasy or heavy residue due to its less greasy nature. (6)
Cream sunscreen has a more emollient and thicker consistency than gel sunscreen. The cream formula keeps the skin replenished and hydrated, giving it a nourished and moisturized feel.
Gel-Based Vs Cream-Based Sunscreen: What to Use for Your Skin?
According to a 2022 study, people with sensitive skin prefer gel-based sunscreen. (6) It can also be used for combination skin due to its non-greasy and lightweight texture.
People prefer gel-based sunscreens over cream-based ones due to their more effective absorption. (7)
A 2019 research reported that gel sunscreen has better stability than cream sunscreen. Additionally, gel sunscreens don’t leave any white cast, whereas cream-based sunscreen’s active ingredients leave a white cast on the skin. (11)
However, one drawback of gel-based sunscreen, based on research, is that it is expensive, hard to produce, and not sold widely. (9) Therefore, cream-based ones are preferred in such a case.
According to a 2022 research, the global sunscreen market in 2019 was valued at around $8.5 million and is projected to be over $10.7 billion by 2024. (12) Cream-based sunscreen is preferred for children from the age group of 6 months to 2 years. (6)
Similarities Between Gel and Cream Sunscreens
The following are the similarities between gel and cream sunscreens.
Both gel and cream sunscreens protect the skin from the harmful UV rays. They prevent damage and avoid UV rays penetration by either absorbing or reflecting them.
Sun protection factor (SPF)
Like other sunscreens, cream and gel sunscreens come in different SPF levels, which indicate the degree of protection against UVB radiation.
Therefore, ensure that your sunscreen’s SPF level is at least 30 or more for an adequate shield.
How to Use Gel and Cream Sunscreens?
Follow these steps to use gel and cream sunscreen:
- Squeeze a clump of sunscreen onto your palm.
- Spread it on your skin evenly.
- Gently rub it until there’s no white cast visible anymore.
- Apply the sunscreen 15–20 minutes before stepping out in the sun, and re-apply after sweating, strenuous exercise, or swimming. Also, re-applying 15–30 minutes after sun exposure is safer than waiting 2 hours.
In what forms do sunscreens come in?
Sunscreens come in multiple over-the-counter (OTC) forms, such as gels, lotions, oils, creams, pastes, ointments, sprays, sticks, powder, and butter.
Other less frequently used non-OTC products that may contain sunscreen are towelettes, body washes, wipes, and shampoo.
What are the different types of sunscreen gels?
There are four types of sunscreen gels:
1. Aqueous gels: In perfect proportion, water and solubilizers (organic agents, nonionic surfactants, and phosphate esters) comprise aqueous gels to keep the gel transparent at all temperatures.
2. Hydro-alcoholic gels: They are made with alcohol and water, and this mixture is crucial in decreasing additional solutes because many lipophilic ingredients can easily mix.
3. Micro-emulsion gels: They are composed of small particles that appear thick, smooth, and even on the skin. They have a high SPF and an elegant feel.
4. Oil-anhydrous formula gels: They resemble ointments. However, ointments are translucent, whereas oil-anhydrous products are clear. These products are made in combination with special silica and mineral oil. (9)
Why does my skin get dark after applying sunscreen?
If your sunscreen stresses your skin (especially the chemical ones), you may experience skin darkening. Additionally, hormonally active ingredients in sunscreen (such as oxybenzone) can lead to hormonal skin darkening.
How to choose a gel-based sunscreen for combination skin?
Look for noncomedogenic and oil-free products when looking for gel-based sunscreen. A few gel-based sunscreens for combination skin contain additional ingredients, such as niacinamide and hyaluronic acid, for hydrating and soothing the skin while providing sun protection.
Both cream and gel sunscreens are great choices to protect your skin from the harmful UV rays, but they offer different advantages and disadvantages based on your preference, skin type, and lifestyle.
The noncomedogenic and nongreasy properties of gel-based sunscreen make it suitable for acne-prone, oily skin as they penetrate deeply. They also dry quickly and have cooling effects.
The moisturizing, soothing, and nourishing properties of cream-based sunscreen make it suitable for sensitive, dry skin, as they provide hydration and better coverage. Thus, what you choose depends on what your skin needs!
- Sunscreen creams – consumer affairs. https://consumeraffairs.nic.in/sites/default/files/file-uploads/ctocpas/sunscreen-13.pdf.
- Dale Wilson B, Moon S, Armstrong F. Comprehensive Review of Ultraviolet Radiation and the current status on Sunscreens. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. September 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460660/.
- World Journal of Pharmaceutical Research et al.. World Journal of … https://wjpr.s3.ap-south-1.amazonaws.com/article_issue/a2078d86d7ad6df1d6c93a0940d9e211.pdf.
- Sunscreen faqs. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/media/stats-sunscreen.
- Latha MS, Martis J, Shobha V, et al. Sunscreening Agents: A Review. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. January 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543289/.
- Expert consensus on the use of Sunscreen Agents: Indian perspective. ReadkonG.com. https://www.readkong.com/page/expert-consensus-on-the-use-of-sunscreen-agents-indian-4941010.
- Full article: Skin Penetration and tissue permeation after topical … https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03007995.2017.1352497.
- Formulation and evaluation of sunscreen gels containing mangiferin … https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337397568/.
- Formulation development and evaluation of Sunscreen – IJIRT. https://ijirt.org/master/publishedpaper/IJIRT151451_PAPER.pdf.
- Ghazwani M, Hani U, Alqarni MH, Alam A. Development and characterization of methyl-anthranilate-loaded silver nanoparticles: A phytocosmetic sunscreen gel for UV protection. Pharmaceutics. May 8, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10221274/.
- Shetty PK, Venuvanka V, Jagani HV, et al. Development and evaluation of sunscreen creams containing morin-encapsulated nanoparticles for enhanced UV radiation protection and antioxidant activity. International journal of nanomedicine. October 13, 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610788/.
- Management D of P. Global trends of sunscreen research literature: A… : Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery. LWW. https://journals.lww.com/jcas/Fulltext/2022/15020/Global_Trends_of_Sunscreen_Research_Literature__A.10.aspx.