A guide to sun protection for people with darker skin

Sunscreen is important, no matter what shade you are.
Person at beach
Darker skins have a head start when it comes to sun protection, but it's not nearly as much as you'd think. Dellon Thomas / Pexels

Overall recommendations on when and if to use sunscreen seem to be clear: always protect yourself from the sun, especially if you have a lighter skin tone. But for people with abundant melanin who often hear phrases like “Black don’t crack” or “Black don’t burn,” guidance around whether or not to wear sunscreen can be confusing.

The common misconception that people of color don’t have to wear sunscreen comes from the fact that high amounts of melanin, by way of its ability to absorb light, offers some degree of sun protection factor (SPF). Public figures have helped this belief take root—actress Angela Bassett (long revered for her seemingly flawless skin) said Black people have “natural sunscreen,” which might lead readers to believe her good looks come just from having dark skin.

But this is not the case. As Dr. Nada Elbuluk, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, explains it, individuals with medium to dark skin can often have natural protection equivalent to roughly SPF 8-15.

“This baseline SPF is not enough to provide adequate sun protection, which is why individuals of color of all shades still need to practice wearing sunscreen on a regular basis,” she says. (Bassett seems to know this, since she’s said she takes good care of her complexion, avoids the sun, and wears sunscreen every day.)

“There is also a myth that people with darker skin tones should not wear sunscreen because of vitamin D deficiency,” says Dr. Chesahna Kindred, associate professor at Howard University department of dermatology in Washington, DC. Studies show high amounts of melanin in the skin can prevent ultraviolet light from reaching the deepest layers of skin that create vitamin D, but in Kindred’s opinion: “The best source of vitamin D is in foods.”

Should people with skin of color wear sunscreen to avoid skin cancer?

Person at beach
Black don’t crack? It does though. And it ages, too. Reafon Gates / Pexels

Another misconception is that skin cancer prevention is the main reason everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, should wear sunscreen. But the relationship between the sun and melanin can’t be wrapped up in one tidy box that fits all groups, and many dermatologists specializing in skin of color are encouraging a more nuanced relationship with sun protection.

Though there is a clear link between UVB radiation (a type of UV radiation given off by the sun) and skin cancer in people with fair skin, this relationship is not as clear-cut in people with skin of color.

Skin cancers in this group typically appear on areas of the body that don’t see much sun, so campaigns that advise people with darker skin to wear sunscreen as protection against skin cancer are misleading, Kindred says.

Unclear information regarding the conditions affecting skin of color doesn’t stop here though—multiple studies have shown that there is a significant lack of images for certain skin conditions as they manifest in people of color. This lack of representation can negatively affect clinicians’ and dermatology students’ ability to accurately diagnose patients with skin of color, as well as public health resources that allow people to spot and recognize potentially concerning skin conditions in themselves.

“The gross lack of awareness is the reason skin cancers are deadlier in patients with darker skin tones,” says Kindred.

Also, most skin cancers affecting people with skin of color aren’t caused by UV exposure, which, contrary to popular belief, means sunscreen will do little to protect them.

In Black people, for example, skin cancers caused by inflammatory conditions are much more common, says Dr. Jenna Lester, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of their Skin of Color program. Conditions such as Hidradenitis suppurativa—which affects hair follicles in typically unexposed areas like under the arms or in the groin—or discoid lupus, an autoimmune disease, can also cause skin cancers, and present a higher risk for Black patients than cancers usually caused by sun exposure.

To add a challenge to an already problematic situation, the majority of funding for dermatology usually goes to researching skin cancers caused by sun exposure, so the study of other skin cancer-causing conditions has become a struggle.

“Although these aren’t allocated to any specific race, this does mean that there is limited funding for skin cancer research in skin of color,” Lester explains.

There’s still much for us to explore in the relationship between the sun and skin of color, but there are plenty of benefits to sun protection besides skin cancer prevention. Lester says she generally recommends sunscreen to her patients with a darker skin tone to treat uneven pigmentation, while Kindred advices hers to wear it for anti-aging.

How to find the right sunscreen for your skin

Person applying lotion in mirror
Physical sunscreens often leave a very unglamorous white cast upon application. Chemical ones are a great alternative. The Creative Exchange / Unsplash

The general rules for choosing the right form of sun protection are roughly the same across all skin tones. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher, broad-spectrum, and water-resistant. Kindred says you should also look for sunscreens with added antioxidants, which have been shown to be more effective that sunscreen alone in minimizing UV damage.

But when it comes to finding the right sunscreen for you, it’s helpful to know how it works.

There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Physical or mineral sunscreens have ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that sit atop the surface of the skin and physically block out and reflect UV rays. Because they act as an actual barrier, physical sunscreens are easier to wash off with sweat or water, but they offer protection as soon as you put them on. Another major downside of physical sunscreens is the white cast they tend to leave upon application. This is especially noticeable on the darkest ranges of skin tones, and some people find it undesirable.

On the other hand, chemical sunscreens contain active organic compounds (usually avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and/or ecamsule) that are absorbed into the skin, where they convert UV rays to heat. A substantial benefit of chemical sunscreen is that since the compounds in them are smaller, they can be formulated to be thinner and easier to spread, making them more convenient for day-to-day use. However, the compounds in chemical sunscreens may cause allergic reactions, and oxybenzone has recently been banned in Hawaii after studies found that even very low concentrations can cause bleaching in corals.

Both types of sunscreen are okay and generally safe to use across skin tones. If you have skin of color and want to avoid the white cast of mineral sunscreens, chemical ones might be best for you. However, if you have sensitive skin and have noticed a reaction to chemical sunscreens in the past, some companies have made transparent physical sunscreens that won’t leave a ghostly white cast. Whatever you decide to go for, be sure to read some reviews, ask around, and see what looks best on your skin.

When and where should you wear sunscreen?

Person working
Just a friendly reminder that that delicious sunlight can penetrate the window and also your skin. Christina @ wocintechchat.com / Unsplash

When it comes to protecting yourself from UV rays, where and when to use sunscreen applies pretty consistently regardless of how much melanin you’re rocking, but many of us still don’t know when sunscreen is necessary, and when it’s not.

No matter what your skin tone, Lester says sunscreen should be worn wherever you’re exposed to UV rays. But that may mean something different than what you think. Though you might assume you can skip sunscreen when it’s cloudy out, it’s best to wear it regardless of the weather. Though thick cloud cover can generally absorb some UV radiation, rays still make it through, and studies have shown that light to thin cloud cover may have an enhancing effect on UV levels, making it even worse than a clear blue sky. Though we don’t definitively know why this is, it might be because thin clouds act like a lens, scattering solar radiation more strongly towards the ground, rather than diffusely into the atmosphere.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you can be exposed to UV rays in places and ways you wouldn’t normally expect. Lester notes that wherever you are exposed to sun rays, you are exposed to UV rays. So if you’re indoors by a window, you’re still exposed and should use sun protection.

To make things a bit more complicated, the risk for UV damage is not limited to solar sources. “Research shows that direct blue light from our devices is enough to cause skin damage. We’ve seen how this visible light can also trigger conditions like melasma, which people with darker skin are already predisposed to,” Lester says.

Not to worry though—recent research has also shown that wearing sunscreen can help mitigate the effects of UV exposure on melasma, and other hyperpigmentation conditions that disproportionately affect people with skin of color. And when it comes to UV protection, Lester notes that sun-protective clothing is also a great option.

When thinking about sun protection, it’s best to play it safe, so Kindred recommends her patients wear sunscreen “indoors, outdoors, rain, shine, winter, and summer.” And in the wise words of Beyoncé, “your skin shines and tells your story,” so be sure to care for it regardless of how much melanin you’re blessed with.