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Should you apply sunscreen or bug repellent first?

Hiker woman applying sun cream to protect her skin from dangerous uv sun rays high in mountains
Should you apply sunscreen or bug repellent first? We answer this incredibly common question to make sure your skin stays safe on your wildest adventures (Image credit: frantic00)

Spending time outdoors carries all kinds of physical and mental health benefits, but it can also require lots of sprays and lotions to protect your skin against various assailants, from harmful UV rays to munching menaces. If you’re gearing up for a day out in the sunshine, you’re definitely going to want to arm yourself with some good sunscreen, but if you’re worried about biting bugs like mosquitos and ticks, you’ll want to be disciplined about applying a good insect repellent, too. So, can you use the two together? And should you apply sunscreen or bug repellent first? We set out to answer these incredibly common questions to make sure your skin stays safe on your wildest adventures.

girl in the forest uses the spray against mosquitoes

Spending time outdoors carries all kinds of physical and mental health benefits, but it can also require lots of sprays and lotions to protect your skin against various assailants (Image credit: itakdalee)

Can you use bug repellent and sunscreen?

Many of you want to know if you can actually use insect repellent and sunscreen together, or if doing so reduces the efficacy of either. According to the Centers for Disease Control (opens in new tab), bug sprays that contain DEET, the active ingredient in the most effective insect repellent products, have been shown to reduce the efficacy of the UVB protection in your sunscreen by as much as one third of the reported SPF on the label. So while they’re pretty good at keeping bugs at bay, you might be more at risk of sun damage.

It also suggests that sunscreen may increase the absorption of DEET into your skin, which many would see as a concern since there is a common belief that DEET is toxic; that said, health experts who have studied DEET conclude that, when used properly, it is safe for the public, but that’s an ongoing debate.

Meanwhile, a clinical trial published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (opens in new tab) confirmed that sunscreen does not impact the effectiveness of insect repellent. So, when using the two together, you don’t need to worry about increased exposure to bug bites, but there is some concern over making sure your skin is amply protected from the sun, while applying the two in the correct order may help reduce DEET absorption. 

woman applying sunscreen

When using the two together, you don’t need to worry about increased exposure to bug bites, but there is some concern over making sure your skin is amply protected from the sun (Image credit: Alex Ratson (Getty))

Should you apply sunscreen or bug repellent first?

According to a 2011 clinical trial (opens in new tab), applying bug spray first then covering it with sunscreen increases the absorption of DEET into your skin, while applying DEET-based repellent on top of sunscreen did not significantly increase dermal absorption.

On days that you need both sunscreen and bug repellent, the CDC suggests that you avoid products that contain both substances as those are not as effective as two separate products. Instead, apply sunscreen first, wait 15 minutes for it to soak in and dry, then apply insect repellent on top of it. The theory is that this will allow the sunscreen to become more effective, without absorbing more DEET than you need to.

Man and his Wife are Scratching Itchy Skin due to the Attack of Insects in Nature

If you’re outside for a long period, remember that the timing for reapplication is different for the two products (Image credit: ProfessionalStudioImages)

If you’re outside for a long period, remember that the timing for reapplication is different for the two products. You’ll want to reapply sunscreen every two hours but DEET-based repellent only every six hours, so don’t automatically apply both each time. Wait until your third reapplication of sunscreen to repeat the DEET-on-top routine.

To be extra safe, you can of course look into non DEET-based insect repellents, and make sure to incorporate other sun protection practices on very bright days, such as wearing a long sleeved base layer and hiking pants to cover your skin, so you’re not solely reliant on sunscreen.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.