Bug Spray or Sunscreen First? The Big Debate

sunscreen being squeezed in a persons hand.
Photo by BATCH by Wisconsin Hemp Scientific via Unsplash
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Warmer climates mean spending more time outside enjoying the sunshine. Whether you’re relaxing on a lounger by a pool in Hawaii or feeling the sand beneath your toes in Bali we all need to make sure our skin is protected from UV rays and those pesky insects. Experts agree that daily sunscreen is a must and depending on where you are or where you’re going applying bug spray is also considered a must.

But which one should be applied first? With so much conflicting information out there we can often feel confused and left to make our own decisions. Although studies have been conducted there is still not a conclusive answer to this big debate. Some suggest that sunscreen should be used first whereas others say it doesn’t matter, and some even say that you can use a combined sunscreen and bug spray, but the truth is that a combined product will never be as effective as two separate ones.

We’ve scrolled through the internet, found a few case studies and have looked at official advice given by the CDC as to whether you should apply bug spray or sunscreen first. After reading this article you’ll know exactly which one you should apply first as well as more information about their effectiveness, why using a combined product may not give you the best results and some safety tips to remember when using each individually.

Bug Spray

Young man spraying mosquito insect repellent in the forrest, insect protection
Photo by Vailery via Envato Elements

Those pesky little insects can often give a nasty bite, leaving you itching and red for days. That’s why bug spray can be one of the most important products on your holiday checklist. Bug spray can come in different forms such as a spray, lotion or balm but they all do exactly the same thing. Any bug repellent that contains DEET will be the most effective against mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, gnats, and flies. 

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hand holding sunscreen with blue background
Photo by Arthur Pereira via Unsplash

Sunscreen is one of the most effective products we can use to limit our risks of sunburn and skin cancer but we still don’t know how to apply it correctly and effectively. This photoprotective topical product needs to be periodically re-applied during the day, usually around every two hours. Sunscreen comes in many different forms like sprays, lotions, gels, foams, sticks, and even oils. They also come in a range of SPF’s (sun protection factors) from four all the way to 50+. It’s recommended that an SPF of around 30 or above is the most effective at preventing UV rays from damaging the skin. 

Should Bug Spray or Sunscreen Be Applied First?

Young couple on beach. Woman applying sun screen protection lotion on man's back. Summer vacation at Maldives.
Photo by Haveseen via Envato Elements

The bug spray or sunscreen first debate is an old one. For many years there has been a lot of confusion as to which is better. Many studies showed that applying bug spray after sunscreen reduced the effectiveness of sunscreen by around 33 per cent. However, another study conducted by the US Army found that applying sunscreen before bug spray didn’t reduce the effectiveness of any product. So why one is correct?

Well the Travel Medicine Community and the CDC all suggest that Sunscreen should be applied first, left for five to ten minutes to allow the sunscreen to be absorbed into the skin and dry before applying bug spray. The same advice is also given to the UK by the NHS. The CDC Yellow Book gives you a thorough rundown of this information. You must bear in mind that sunscreen will need to be applied more frequently than some bug sprays, so you’ll end up alternating your applications. 

It is recommended that bug spray be applied every four to six hours whereas sunscreen is around every two hours. If you’ve been swimming be sure to reapply both as water can wash away and reduce the effectiveness of both products.  

Which is better? A Combination or Separate Products?

Natural mosquitoes repellent gel derived from lemongrass and other herbs on white background. Safe and environmental friendly.
Photo by ThamKC via Envato Elements

Combining bug spray and sunscreen into one product may seem like a good idea but it may not be as effective at protecting ourselves from exposure to both the sun and insects. Some studies have shown that combining DEET with sunscreen actually reduces the sun protection factor (SPF) of the sunscreen by around 30 percent or more. Another possible risk associated with a combined product is DEET toxicity as sunscreen can enhance the absorption of DEET into the body. 

Pierre George, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology suggests using two separate products due to the application process being so different for both DEET-based bug sprays and sunscreen. As sunscreen should be applied generously and frequently; at least one ounce of sunscreen to the entire body at least every two hours and more frequently when swimming or sweating. Whereas bug sprays only need to be applied every two to six hours depending on the concentration of DEET. 

It’s fair to say that with all these studies and advice given by the CDC having two separate products are always better than one. Each will give more protection against UV rays and insects. 

Safety Tips:

sunscreen and water bottle
Photo by Dimitris Chapsoula via Unsplash

You might want to consider these quick safety tips to make sure you’re applying your sunscreen and bug spray correctly, it will also help maximize the effectiveness of both.

Sunscreen Safety Tips:

  • Remember to always read the product instructions before applying sunscreen.
  • During the hours of 10 am and 3 pm the sun is at its hottest so limiting your time in the sun between these hours will give you added protection against UV rays.
  • Remember to apply your sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside to allow time for your skin to absorb it. 
  • Sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours to remember effective, this is even more important when you have been swimming or sweating.
  • Wearing a hat and sunglasses will give your face, eyes, and the top of your head protection against sun damage.
  • For the best protection use broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays.

Bug Spray Safety Tips:

  • Similar to sunscreen always read the production instructions before applying bug spray.
  • Apply bug spray to exposed skin only. Make sure you do not apply it to broken, damaged, or irritated skin.
  • When applying it to your face, spray it into your hands first and then gently apply it.
  • Be sure to avoid applying the bug spray around your eyes and mouth and use it sparingly around your ears.
  • Natural bug sprays containing oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) are safe to use and can protect against mosquitoes for up to six hours. They are a great alternative to DEET-based products.
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Justine King is from the UK and has been a full-time traveller and freelance writer since 2020 after a 6-year career in Hospitality. Clients benefit from her love and knowledge of the sector as she creates informative and inspiring articles to help guide readers totheir next travel destination.