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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 Dr. Sandra Lee MD (who you may recognize as Dr. Pimple Popper) and board-certified dermatologists 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.
Why is 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 added.
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 pointed out that this conversion to heat can cause issues for people with sensitive skin issues like rosacea.
Both King and Lee also noted 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.
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 told 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 1%.
"[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 said.
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 said. "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."
How often should you apply sunscreen?
Lee emphasized the importance of reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, especially as you're sweating and spending time in the water.
"People think higher numbers mean they don't have to reapply [sunscreen]," she said. "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 said.
"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."
Which sunscreen is right for you?
Both Lee and Linkner said 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," said Linkner.
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
This oil-free, hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic sunscreen from Aveeno is perfect for everyday use because it won't clog your pores as it hydrates your skin. Lee recommends this for use as a primer under makeup.
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.
This fragrance-free sunscreen is recommended by King as a "great choice that's guaranteed to dry completely clear."
From personal experience, she is exactly right! I've been using this sunscreen and its matte counterpart interchangeably everyday for just about two years and love the lightweight feel it has while leaving no white cast.
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 recommended by Lee.
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 said. "And it's moisturizing with shea butter, coconut oil, olive oil and safflower seed oil."
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 also recommends this transparent option for use as a makeup primer.
This lightweight sunscreen boasts benefits like brightening skin and targeting skin concerns like dark spots, dullness and discoloration.
"This product leaves no cast in those who have darker tones and [can be] easily applied to large surface areas," Linkner told us.
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 said.
This tinted brush-on sunscreen from Colorescience is a great option that makes reapplying a breeze and keeps your makeup intact and smudge-free.
For more stories like this, check out:
- 11 top-rated sunscreens that won't irritate sensitive skin
- How to shop for the best sunscreen, according to Consumer Reports
- Have facial redness? Here's what can be causing it and how to treat it
- Alicia Keys talks affirmations, beauty standards and her new 'make you' line