The Best Sunscreen Formulas for Darker Skin Tones

Expert recommendations for melanin-rich skin.

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For decades, there has been a longstanding myth that those with darker, melanin-rich complexions don’t need to apply sunscreen. There’s no exact origin of this fallacy, but you should know that while Black may not crack easily...not protecting yourself from the sun’s powerful rays will surely speed up the aging process, doing some major damage along the way. That’s why finding a sunscreen that works for darker skin tones is so essential.

Sunscreen is something that needs to be applied every single day: even if you’re just working from home or lounging indoors. Not utilizing SPF in your routine increases your chance of premature aging (think fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation), not to mention developing skin cancer, which is truly as scary as it sounds.

“People with darker skin tones and melanin-rich skin have inherent sun protection in the range of 8-13, so we don’t burn as easily, and [we] experience skin aging that begins at older ages and in different, less apparent ways,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD. “Therefore, there is a myth that’s been prevalent in communities of color that sunscreen is unnecessary and only for white people. This is slowly being debunked as more and more people of color are developing skin cancer and paying attention to subtle signs of aging. Add to that the fact that physical sunscreens were previously thick and white leaving an iridescent cast on Black and brown skin, furthering the notion that they were not intended for use by darker skin tones.”

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As more brands surface that are made with the melanin-rich skin in mind, the old days of chalky, heavy sunscreens that fail to allow Black and brown skin to shine in all their glory are slowly, but surely, becoming a thing of the past. Below, everything you need to know about sun care for darker skin tones, as well as expert recommendations on the best products to keep you protected this summer.

The Facts About Sun Damage

“Sun damage in darker skin manifests differently than in lighter skin,” says Dr. Hartman. “Darker skin is spared the sunspots and laxity. Instead, the collagen loss results in mid-face volume loss and the development of deep grooves and folds. Confetti-like hypo-pigmented macules start to appear while an overall darkening of the background skin occurs as well.” Darker skin is thus spared the small blood vessels that are seen with chronic sun exposure on lighter skin tones, but can develop small, dark papules that are associated with premature aging.

Cosmetic chemist Esther Olu continues, “we can conclude by now that sun damage causes an array of issues, from premature aging to skin barrier dysfunction. Essentially, sun damage is not easily noticeable in the skin as it affects the epidermis and deeper parts of our skin — the dermis. Sun damage appears different in darker skin tones due to the increased amounts of melanin darker skin tones have.” This means that skin cancer is usually detected later in patients of color, which leads to increased morbidity. To compare, the five year survival rate for non-white melanoma patients is 70%, compared to 92% for white patients. That’s why a yearly skin check with your dermatologist is so crucial.

If you’re worried about dark spots and hyperpigmentation (in addition to preventing skin cancer), Dr. Hartman stresses that an SPF is your first line of defense. “I always tell patients that if they are treating hyperpigmentation without a sunscreen, then they are working against their progress and wasting their time,” he says. Even if you’re not going outside, applying daily SPF is a must. Just think that if it’s bright enough that you can see, you need sunscreen.

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SPF 30 Is The Minimum

There has been a lot of chatter over the last few decades around sun protection factors, which are the numbers that measure how much solar energy (UV radiation) is required to produce sunburn on protected skin relative to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin, according to the FDA. You’ve probably seen a bevy of SPF numbers ranging from 10 upwards, but board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Michelle Henry, along with Dr. Hartman, agree that you should be wearing at least SPF 30 on a daily basis.

If you’re going to be outdoors instead of just inside, then Dr. Henry suggests SPF 50. But anything higher than that won’t really give you the protection it’s advertising. “I tell my patients that anything more than [SPF] 50 is a waste of money and anything less than 30 is a waste of time,” says Dr. Hartman.

Reapplication Is A Must

Just as you would touch-up any beauty product you wear all day, you must touch up your sunscreen in order to be adequately protected. Dr. Henry suggests reapplying every two hours whenever you go outside, and Dr. Hartman and Olu suggest applying sunscreen as the last step in your routine in general, so it can “act as a final shield of armor.” A powder SPF is a great option to help make your reapplication as seamless as possible, without disturbing your makeup.

Olu says that “SPF needs adequate time to form a film on the skin, which is why you will typically see on the back of packaging to wait 10-15 minutes prior to sun exposure. It can be tempting to mix SPF or apply SPF before other steps, but SPF should always be last. If one wants to add makeup on top or tinted moisturizer for example, they should still wait time for the sunscreen film to form and then proceed to apply their makeup.”

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Ingredients To Look For

Dr. Henry suggests looking for sunscreen products that contain micronized particles, as they allow the product to absorb better into your skin and thus create a less pasty effect. “I also love sunscreens that contain iron oxide to help protect against blue light damage,” she says.

Dr. Hartman recommends looking out for “Cysteamine, tranexamic acid, or mandelic acid as active ingredients that can lighten dark spots and even the skin tone without hydroquinone.” He adds that, “a retinoid should be a part of every anti-aging regimen for its ability to provide an even complexion, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, relax pores, and prevent breakouts.”

Olu advises that people with darker skin tones should look for products with pearlescent pigments, as these will help make the formula more transparent and compliment the array of undertones that are present in melanated skin. She also speaks highly of antioxidants as “they not only help stabilize sunscreens but they work synergistically with SPF to reduce the risk of photo damage, and help mitigate the problem of free radical damage.”

Don’t forget to shop 13 of the best sunscreen products you should be investing in right now if you have melanin-rich skin.

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