There's a common misconception that more melanated skin tones don't need sunscreen. Regardless of your skin tone, sunscreen is a vital investment in skin health as it provides protection against harmful UV rays, visible light and pollutants. It also helps to protect your skin from damage and hyperpigmentation.
Below, we asked some of the top skin experts to debunk myths and explain just why sunscreen is essential for all skin tones, including ours.
Why do melanated skin tones still need to use SPF?
Despite having more natural protection from melanin, darker-hued people can still burn. Their skin is still susceptible to damage caused by sun exposure. “There's a common misconception that browner or darker skin tones don’t need to use sunscreen because 'we have melanin' or 'we don’t burn from sun exposure,' but Black skin can still burn,” says Taylor Bagby, RN and SkinSpirit Aesthetic Nurse Specialist.
In fact, chronic sun exposure can also lead to discoloration, wrinkles and even skin cancers, regardless of skin color. “Hyperpigmentation is a common skin concern that I see in my practice," adds Caroline Robinson, MD, dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology. "Black patients are particularly at risk just by virtue of having more melanin.”
While melanin provides some baseline protection, it falls below the recommended SPF 30 by the American Academy of Dermatology. “Melanated skin tones can still get skin cancer, which can sometimes be diagnosed later and be more severe at time of diagnosis,” explains Karen Chinonso Kagha, MD and a COOLA Dermatologist Partner.
The Pros and Cons of Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens
Both physical and chemical sunblocks are safe to use, but they have distinct characteristics. Physical sunscreens, containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, create a physical barrier on the skin, providing immediate protection. Mineral sunscreens are notorious for leaving a cast on the skin. This is typically the result of a physical screen ingredient called zinc oxide, which is very difficult to blend into darker skin tones. They are ideal for sensitive skin and offer coverage against UVA and UVB rays. “Physical sunscreens give broad spectrum coverage and can sometimes be more easily tolerated in those with sensitive skin,” explains Dr. Kagha.
It's often difficult, though, to find mineral sunscreens that blend seamlessly on the skin without leaving a garish blue, gray or white cast. “I only recommend physician or mineral sunscreens with active ingredients including zinc and titanium dioxide,” says Bagby. It may take some trial and error to find a sunscreen that blends well with darker skin tones.
Tinted mineral SPFs might be the way to go for some if they're looking to avoid a Casper-the-ghost-like tone. "I prefer mineral-tinted sunscreens for my patients with more sensitive skin, prone to hyperpigmentation, and those who are very acne prone," says Dr. Robinson. "But chemical sunscreens are safe to use and do not have the same risk for developing a cast."
Chemical sunscreens, though, require 20 to 30 minutes to become effective and work by absorbing or converting the sun's rays. Some, however, find them to be a more elegant option as they can be easier to formulate for invisible coverage on even the darkest complexions.
Certain chemical ingredients, such as avobenzone and oxybenzone, have been shown to worsen existing acne. “I typically recommend that patients who have darker skin and are acne prone opt for oil-free brands and avoid sunscreens with vitamin E, shea butter or cocoa butter,” says Dr. Robinson.
The most important takeaway is the importance of finding an SPF that you like and that you will use daily. “Always choose a sunscreen that you are willing to wear consistently. And, please, it is important to choose something that has an SPF of at least 30,” explains Dr. Kagha.
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