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Is Wash-On Sunscreen The Answer For People Who Hate Sunscreen?

Obviously they are all wearing sunscreen.
Obviously they are all wearing sunscreen.
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

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Of all the skin care products out there, it's hard to think of one that's less fun than sunscreen. It's kind of like the condom of beauty: you know you need to use it, but it adds absolutely nothing pleasurable to the immediate moment. A lot of sunscreens can make you look chalky white or greasy, neither of which are great looks, and many of them smell weird to boot. But by not using one, you're potentially signing up for a future of skin cancer, dark spots, and wrinkles. Every single dermatologist I've ever spoken to lists it as the most important skin care step you can take everyday, no matter what your age.

So when I heard about Dr. Russo Sun Protective Day Cleanser SPF 30, I was curious. The concept sounds laughable at first. You use the product like you would use any facial cleanser, rinse it off, and a layer of sun protective chemicals somehow remains behind. The FDA, which has a notoriously cumbersome approval process for sunscreen products, didn't think it was quite so ludicrous, though. This product is the first of its kind to score the agency's approval.

The product contains the chemical sunscreen ingredients octocrylene, octinoxate, and avobenzone, as opposed to physical sunscreen ingredients like zinc or titanium dioxide. (For a quick refresher, chemical sunscreen ingredients have to be absorbed into the skin to work, where they then absorb the sun's rays; physical sunscreens work by deflecting and scattering the sun.)

dr. russon sunscreen Dr. Russo

After you wash your face with the cleanser, you rinse and pat dry, with no vigorous towel drying allowed. As you're washing your face, the active ingredients become encapsulated and sit on top of the skin. Dr. Luca Russo, the London based cosmetic and dermatologic surgeon who founded this product line, said in an email, "The wash-on technology creates a semi occlusive layer of sunscreen, allowing the penetration of active ingredients through the capsule." So those ingredients sit adhered to the skin in their microscopic magic capsule long enough for you to rinse and dry your face, then they penetrate through the capsule and, presumably, into your skin.

I sought out another opinion from someone with no financial stake in this sunscreen. "I was prepared to tell you there's no way this is a good idea," says Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a New York City based dermatologist. "Now I'm finding it kind of interesting. The encapsulation and binding to the skin makes sense."

I recently went on vacation to Australia, which I decided was an ideal sunny location for this product test. Because I'm exceptionally vain, I tested it on one hand first to make sure those tiny capsules did what they were supposed to do. (If I ended up with one bacon hand, there was no way it was going on my face.) I used La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 30 Cooling Water Lotion Sunscreen on one hand as a control and the Dr. Russo cleanser on the other. After four days of sunny sightseeing, both hands seemed equally pale, so I decided to trust it to my face next.

I used the cleanser, which smells mildly like sunscreen, in the shower and it felt like a cleansing milk — it's not a foamy cleanser. After rinsing, I patted my face dry as per the instructions. I was expecting to feel some sort of layer or coating on my face, but it truly feels like nothing, which is a very freeing sensation after years of sunscreen tyranny. You shouldn't use toners, scrubs, or other cleansers after you've used the wash-on sunsreen, but serum and moisturizers are fine. I applied my serum, but this is the part that gave me pause. Would the serum absorb through a layer of sunscreen?

"That is a concern I certainly have. We want all these great actives directly on your skin so they get absorbed," Dr. Hale says, noting that she'd love to see studies to this effect. According to Dr. Russo, "The absorption is reduced but still allows part of the serum to be absorbed." So this product might be better for someone who is a skin care minimalist and doesn't use a multi-step product regimen in the morning.

After another few days of sightseeing and no new color on my face, I was a believer. It really is a pretty elegant product, with some caveats. The serum issue could be a deal breaker if you are a product junkie and layer on potions in the morning. The other issue is that the product is only available on Space NK, where it is sold for the not insignificant price of $75. Use it on your entire body only if you are independently wealthy.

Finally, it should be noted that, like moisturizers that contain SPF, for example, this is not a totally foolproof sunscreen method. I used supplemental sunscreen on days I was out at the beach. Dr. Hale views it as an adjunct to whatever else you're using, like moisturizer or foundation containing SPF or even a more traditional sunscreen on top. "It would be wrong to just rely on that product alone. Look at it is an additive extra step," she says. "Most of the sun damage we get throughout our lives is not just being at the beach. It's from walking around and incidental sun exposure." Dr. Russo agrees, and his product line actually includes an SPF 30 moisturizer.

I'd love to see a larger sunscreen brand tackle this technology at a lower price point. Despite its downsides, not feeling it on the skin really makes it one of the most innovative sunscreens I've used in a long time.