Many people of color believe that having dark skin protects them from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays. Unfortunately, they’re wrong.
Dark skin, which is rich in the pigment melanin, offers some protection from UV rays, but not enough to entirely ward off the cellular damage that leads to skin cancer.
Meanwhile, 63 percent of Black Americans reported having never used sunscreen, because they assume they’re not at risk, according to a survey from the Skin Cancer Foundation.
The result of this disconnect?
While the rate of cancer in people of color is lower than in those with fair skin, it tends to be more deadly when it does occur — largely because assumptions about risk lead to people missing the early signs.
Moral of the story? Wear sunscreen, even if you’ve been endowed with a healthy dose of melanin. But which ones work best for darker skin?
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Types of Sunscreen: What Are Your Options?
Sunscreens come in two types: chemical and mineral.
Mineral sunscreens are also called physical blockers because they contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on the surface of the skin and work by reflecting away ultraviolet rays. Mineral sunscreens also need to be reapplied less often than the chemical variety.
Mineral sunscreens are particularly helpful for dark skin because they use zinc oxide to deflect heat. Heat worsens hyperpigmentation, which melanin-rich skin is prone to. But zinc is difficult to formulate into a wearable sunscreen, especially for darker skin, because it tends to leave behind a whitish cast.
Chemical sunscreens are more transparent than the mineral type, and consist of organic, carbon-based compounds. Instead of reflecting away ultraviolet rays, the molecules absorb the UV energy and help dissipate it before it can reach and damage the skin.
Neither type is right or wrong for brown skin. When advising her patients on sunscreen, Shani Francis, MD, says start by selecting an SPF of 30 and look for the “broad spectrum” label to ensure adequate coverage.
Dr. Francis says she prefers a tinted zinc-based product, but that both mineral and chemical sunscreens offer effective sun protection — the kind you choose ultimately depends on what works best for your skin type.
Here’s a selection of what our experts recommended for dark skin:
Nada Elbuluk, MD, assistant professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, and chair of the Skin of Color Society Research Committee, touts EltaMD as one of the best options for people of color. This sheer, lightweight, mineral-based formula uses lactic acid as an oil controller, making it perfect for sensitive, acne-prone skin.
Find it at EltaMD.com
Active Radiance Day Moisture
Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, created Specific Beauty skin products with women of color in mind. This sunscreen is fragrance-free, alcohol-free, dye-free, lanolin-free, and cruelty-free. It also includes a touch of gold mica to combat the dryness so common in many with melanin-rich skin.
Find it at SpecificBeauty.com
Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On
Powder sunscreens like this one won’t clog your pores, and can be easily applied every two hours for maximum coverage. It comes in a range of shades from fair to deep and also reduces excess shine for a matte finish while protecting your skin.
Find it at Colorescience.com
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Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Facial Moisturizer
This one is a broad-spectrum, hypoallergenic, oil-free sunscreen. Dr. Elbuluk says the added soy does wonders to improve skin texture and help even out pigmentation and skin tone.
Find it at Amazon.com
Umbra Sheer Physical Defense
This one is a mineral sunscreen that disappears even on dark complexions while providing maximum coverage.
Find it at Sephora.com
This sunscreen is an all-in-one mineral sunscreen that acts as a concealer and finish for every skin tone. Developed with plastic surgeons, CC+ Cream provides clinically tested hydration while disguising imperfections. It reduces the appearance of acne scarring, wrinkles, redness on skin, dark circles under eyes, and large pores.
Find it at ItCosemetics.com
ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica
Cheryl Burgess, founder and president of the Center for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery in Washington, DC, touts this product as a good option for melanin-rich skin. This mineral sunscreen absorbs into the skin easily and contains DNA-repair enzymes to help protect and repair sun damaged skin.
Find it at Isdin.com
LaRoche Posay Anthelios Ultralight
This sunscreen is 100 percent mineral and another favorite of dermatologists for people of color. The universal light tint creates a healthy glow for all skin types.
Find it at LaRoche-Posay.us
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Black Girl Sunscreen
This sunscreen has a hydrating but nongreasy formula that goes on clear and makes an effective base for makeup. It is also environmentally friendly and contains avocado, jojoba cacao, carrot juice, and sunflower oil that shield skin from irritation and sunburn, and provide relief from inflammation as well. The company recently added a sunscreen for kids.
Find it at BlackGirlSunscreen.com
CLEAR Ultra-Light Daily Fluid
This product is lightweight and oil-free, and protects skin from UVB and UVA rays while enriching skin with antioxidants to promote a youthful appearance. It has a matte finish.
Find it at PaulasChoice.com
EleVen on the Defense Sunscreen
Tennis star Venus Williams is a Black woman who spends an inordinate amount of time outdoors in the sun. She helped create this product, which is sheer, fragrance-free, mineral-based, and broad-spectrum sunscreen. It is made with 25 percent zinc oxide and uses prickly pear to soothe irritated skin.
Find it at ElevenByVenusWilliams.com
This sunscreen is tinted, mineral-based, and lightweight. It goes on with a smooth, silky finish that complements women of color because it leaves no residue or white cast.
Find it at UnsunCosmetics.com
Superstar singer and actress Rihanna says she created her Fenty line of skin-care products — and this 2-in-1 oil-free moisturizer and sunscreen, in particular — to show that being glamorous can be effortless for those with dark skin. This SPF 30 sunscreen and moisturizer is chemical and truly invisible on all skin tones. It’s recyclable, refillable, vegan, and gluten-free. It also addresses dehydration, discoloration, and dark spots.
Find it at FentyBeauty.com
CeraVe AM Sunscreen
This one works nicely and blends seamlessly into all skin tones. Its nongreasy texture makes it suitable for sensitive skin, while still offering mineral protection from titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. “I often incorporate it as a part of an acne regimen that includes a morning time prescription topical and then I want to add on a moisturizer-sunscreen to be used after to protect the patients,” says Seemal R. Desai, MD, a dermatologist based in Dallas.
Find it at Cerave.com
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