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New study highlights lack of sunscreen options for darker skin tones

Tinted sunscreen products protect against UV and visible light. But there aren't many shade options for those with darker skin tones.
Skin care using cosmetic skin cream Woman with black skin
Researchers used data from Sephora reviews to find out what people with different skin tones look for in SPF products.andreswd / Getty Images

Sunscreen is an essential part of any skin care regimen — and for any skin color or type. But, as a new study highlights, people of color may have a harder time finding a tinted sunscreen that matches their skin tone.

For the study, published in April in the journal Cutis, researchers analyzed about 1,200 customer reviews on the Sephora website to find patterns in what customers look for in a sunscreen and their favorite products. The researchers chose to look at Sephora reviews because they also typically contain information about the reviewer's skin tone.

Their results showed that the most important factors in a tinted facial sunscreen product are the elegance of the formula (generally how it feels on the skin), product performance, skin compatibility and tone compatibility. Of the 58 tinted sunscreen products included in the study, most (32 or 62%) only offered one shade.

The researchers focused on tinted sunscreens because they usually contain iron oxides, co-author Dr. Naleem Vashi, founder and director of the Center for Ethnic Skin at Boston University, told TODAY.

"I have a very large population of patients with darker skin tones who want cosmetic treatments," she explained. Tinted sunscreens "can potentially provide better coverage for someone who has a darker tone," Vashi continued. "Also, iron oxide is what is providing that color, that brown, that tint to the sunscreen. And iron oxide has also been shown to protect against visible light."

Iron oxide and sunscreen for darker skin tones

Common sunscreen ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can protect against some effects of UV light on the skin. Iron oxide, however, can protect against visible light, which emerging research suggests can have unique effects on people with darker skin tones, Dr. Amy McMichael, chair and professor of dermatology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and past chair of the Skin of Color Society, told TODAY. 

"One of the big things that brings people of color into dermatologists is hyperpigmentation," said McMichael, who was not involved with the research. Hyperpigmentation can be the result of a variety of other skin conditions such as acne, eczema or psoriasis. People of color are also more likely to experience melasma or age-related skin pigmentation issues, McMichael explained.

And researchers are beginning to understand that visible light, along with UV light, can exacerbate all of those pigmentation issues — particularly in people of color. But the new study suggests it's these consumers who have the fewest options in iron oxide-containing tinted sunscreens that can offer the best protection.

Both experts told TODAY their patients of color frequently report having trouble finding sunscreens that work with their skin tone. A mineral sunscreen product with no tint can make people with darker skin look "pasty," McMichael said. And for some, even tinted mineral sunscreen can go on pasty, she said. So having the right shade — and a variety of shades to try out — can be helpful.

So, what this study points out, is that manufacturers "have to be more aware of what they need to put in their products to reach a greater segment of the population,” McMichael said.

If patients have a hard time finding a mineral sunscreen option that works for them, she may steer them towards lighter, chemical sunscreens that tend to blend into skin more easily, she explained. "But for my patients who have underlying issues, like seborrheic dermatitis, their skin may be easily irritated, so they're going to do better with (mineral) sunscreen."

She also underscored the importance of wearing sun-protective clothing and practicing other sun safety tips, in addition to using sunscreen.

Best tinted sunscreens for darker skin tones

That said, the study did find some consistent winners. For instance, the Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer with SPF 20 was the top reviewed product in the study across light, medium and dark skin tones. Those who had darker skin also highly rated the following:

  • Nars Pure Radiant Tinted Moisturizer with SPF 30
  • Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer Natural Skin Perfector broad spectrum SPF 30
  • BareMinerals Original Liquid Mineral Foundation Broad Spectrum SPF 20 
  • Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint with SPF 40

The BareMinerals and Ilia products were the only two included in the sample that offered up to 30 different shades, the study authors noted.

Knowing the top-reviewed products and which factors people value most in choosing a product can help dermatologists give better sunscreen recommendations to their patients, Vashi said. “And if more brands make more shades, then they can potentially make more patients happy with how their skin looks with sunscreen on.”