Whether you're on the beach or just going for a walk, you should be applying sunscreen regularly, even if you have darker skin. There is a common misconception that people with darker skin tones don't need sunscreen because they naturally produce more melanin. While this is partially true, the natural production of melanin doesn't shield anyone completely from sun damage.
Shop TODAY spoke to board-certified dermatologists Dr. Sandra Lee, MD (who you may recognize as Dr. Pimple Popper), Dr. Hadley King, MD and Dr. Rita Linkner, MD about why sunscreen is essential if you have darker skin, along with some of the products they recommend to protect you without leaving a white cast.
Demystifying SPF levels | Is sunscreen important? | Expert picks | FAQs | Meet our experts
Does SPF matter for people with darker skin tones?
The short answer is yes, but not in the way you might think!
SPF is the sun protectant factor of a sunscreen. It measures how much a product can shield you from UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburn), King tells us. While most equate a higher SPF number with greater protection, that is not exactly the case. The difference in protection between SPF 100 and SPF 50 is about one percent.
"[For example], SPF 100 blocks 99 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. SPF 30, meanwhile, blocks 96.7 percent of UVB rays," she says.
The SPF number is also there to help you figure out how often you should be reapplying sunscreen.
"The basic calculation is, if it takes one minute for your unprotected skin to start turning red in the sun, using an SPF 15 sunscreen should prevent reddening 15 times longer," King explains. "So the number of minutes it takes for your unprotected skin to turn red multiplied by the SPF gives you the theoretical number of minutes that your protected skin will take before it turns red."
Why is wearing sunscreen important for darker skin tones?
Linkner recommends wearing sunscreen 365 days a year. Not only does it have anti-aging benefits, but it'll also help prevent melanoma and other forms of skin cancer by protecting you from harmful ultraviolet rays.
"UV exposure can increase risk for discoloration and fine lines and wrinkles, and can increase risk for skin cancer, even in dark skin," King adds.
One of the biggest barriers when choosing a sunscreen for people with darker skin tones is trying to find a product that doesn't leave a white cast. Physical sunscreens have come a long way, so there are a plethora of options on the market that dry on clear without having to forcefully rub it in. Here are a few picks from the experts to get you started.
Best sunscreens for darker skin tones, according to dermatologists
Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer Sunscreen
This oil-free, hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic sunscreen with SPF 15 from Aveeno is perfect for everyday use because it won't clog your pores as it hydrates your skin. Lee recommends using this as a primer under makeup.
RoC Multi-Correxion Even Tone + Lift Daily Moisturizer
Another Lee recommendation, this moisturizing sunscreen touts five anti-aging effects including reducing discoloration, restoring skin elasticity and firmness and smoothing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. According to the brand, it provides broad-spectrum protection with SPF 30.
Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 30
King recommends this fragrance-free sunscreen. She calls it a "great choice that's guaranteed to dry completely clear."
From personal experience, she is exactly right! I've been using this sunscreen everyday for almost three years and love the lightweight feel it has while leaving no white cast. (Plus: the kids version of the sunscreen is just as lightweight, has SPF 50 and is a fraction of the price.)
EltaMD UV Facial Moisturizing Sunscreen
Protect your face while keeping it hydrated with this EltaMD sunscreen that contains hyaluronic acid. Not only does this broad-spectrum sunscreen guard your skin from UVA and UVB rays, it also comes with Lee's seal of approval.
Unsun Mineral Tinted Face Sunscreen
One way to avoid a white cast from sunscreen is to find a tinted option that matches your skin tone. While there are many tinted moisturizers out there, King recommends this one from Unsun.
"[It's] all mineral but formulated to cover a range of skin tones without leaving a white residue," she says. "And it's moisturizing with shea butter, coconut oil, olive oil and safflower seed oil."
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen
Not only does this lightweight sunscreen protect against UVA and UVB rays, it also helps protect against the blue light that is emitted from phones, computers and tablets. Lee says this also can be used as a makeup primer.
Rodan + Fields Reverse Brightening Defense Fluid Lotion
This lightweight SPF 50 sunscreen boasts benefits like brightening skin and targeting skin concerns like dark spots, dullness and discoloration.
"This product leaves no cast on those who have darker tones and [can be] easily applied to large surface areas," Linkner tells us.
Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen
Wearing makeup can make reapplying sunscreen throughout the day a hassle. Lee recommends sunscreen powder as a solution to that problem.
"You should wear a cream or lotion [sunscreen] as your base in the morning but use [sunscreen powder] for reapplying," she suggests.
This tinted brush-on sunscreen from Colorescience is a great option that makes reapplying a breeze while keeping your makeup intact and smudge-free.
Frequently asked questions
What's the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen?
There are two types of sunscreen you can choose from: physical (mineral) and chemical. Physical sunscreen acts as a barrier between the top of your skin's surface and the sun's rays. While active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do a better job deflecting UV rays from absorbing into your skin, they're also thicker and don't rub in as easily. This could leave a lingering white cast, which is more noticeable for people with darker skin tones.
Chemical sunscreens, meanwhile, tend to work like a sponge. They absorb the sun's rays and convert them into heat, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. While chemical sunscreens can leave less of a white cast, if any at all, Lee points out that this conversion to heat can cause issues for people with sensitive skin issues like rosacea.
Both King and Lee also note that there have been some issues with the ingredients in chemical sunscreens. Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens, has been rated an eight by the Environmental Working Group, a rating that puts it in the high hazard category. Octinoxate, along with oxybenzone, has been shown to have a negative impact on the coral reef and marine life, according to the National Ocean Service.
What SPF level should you use?
Both Lee and Linkner say that a higher SPF number often leads to thicker products. "These higher SPF formulations are thicker and harder to rub in, which forces people to apply less [product and] less frequently," says Linkner.
However, these thicker sunscreens can clog pores and cause acne, Lee tells us. She recommends sticking with a SPF 30 sunscreen that you reapply throughout the day.
How often should you apply sunscreen?
Lee emphasizes the importance of reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, especially when you're sweating and spending time in the water.
"People think higher numbers mean they don't have to reapply [sunscreen]," she says. "If you're outdoors all day, you want to reapply it every couple of hours."
Your body even has a telltale sign so you know when to get out of the sun, Lee explains.
"Even if you get a tan, as someone with a darker skin tone, that is your body telling you you've had too much sun."
Meet our experts
- Dr. Sandra Lee, MD, also known as Dr. Pimple Popper, is a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. She currently practices at Skin Physicians & Surgeons in Upland, California.
- Dr. Hadley King, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
- Dr. Rita Linkner, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City and the founder of RVL Skincare.