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Asked & Answered: Do darker skin tones still need to wear SPF?

Two of the most common questions when it comes to SPF are “Can black people get sunburned?” and “Do black people need sunscreen?” The short answer to both? Yes! Here, we tell you everything you need to know about darker skin and the sun.


Here’s a fact: All skin tones should wear sunscreen to protect from skin cancer and to help offset the signs of aging. But those with darker skin tones are naturally a bit more protected from the sun than those with lighter skin tones. Why? And does that mean darker skin tones don’t need to wear as much sunscreen, especially if they hardly ever get sunburned? Not so fast!


Let’s break down exactly how the relationship between the sun and the skin works, and how those with deep undertones should approach sunscreen to maintain healthy skin.


The sun visibly affects different skin tones in different ways––but that doesn’t mean your skin is safe.


We know that everyone needs to wear sunscreen, but why do those with darker skin tones sometimes burn less easily and other times seem to never burn?


Let’s have a quick science lesson: All skin - regardless of color - is made up of the same number of melanocytes, which are the cells in the base layer of the epidermis that specialize in pigment. People with darker skin, usually those of Asian, African and Middle Eastern descent, produce more melanin from their melanocytes. Melanin works to protect skin from the sun’s UVB rays (the ones responsible for burning) but not from UVA rays (the ones responsible for aging and the main culprit when it comes to skin cancer). This is why those with darker skin tones don’t always show visible sunburns as easily as those with fairer skin.


But even though those with darker skin may not show a red sunburn, that doesn’t mean the sun isn’t affecting them. The sun’s UVA rays affect everyone, and no one is immune to the damage they cause when it comes to skin breakdown and the risk of skin cancer. “Melanin protects skin from some UV rays, however it’s not 100 percent,” says Dr. Jennifer David, a dermatologist in Northfield, New Jersey. “While a person with dark skin may not experience a red sunburn from being unprotected in the sun the same way a fair-skinned individual would, the UV rays from the sun will still cause the breakdown of collagen and elastin in the skin and lead to advanced aging in all ethnicities.”


There are some major benefits to wearing sunscreen if you have darker skin.


According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a survey found that 63 percent of black people don’t use sunscreen. This is a serious problem, especially since according to a 2016 database review of nearly 97,000 melanoma patients published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly half of black and a third of Hispanic patients are diagnosed in late stages of melanoma, while just 24 percent of white patients are. Darker skin can virtually mask signs of skin cancer, meaning it goes undetected for longer, ending in absolutely detrimental effects on health. In fact, studies showed that the five-year survival rate for African Americans with melanoma is 74 percent, compared to 93 perfect for Caucasians. Particularly vulnerable places for black people are places where the skin is lighter, like the soles of the feet, under the fingernails and the palms.


On top of protecting your skin from skin cancer, if you have darker skin and want to help stall the signs of aging, then wearing sunscreen is the number one thing you can do on a daily basis to help, since 90 percent of the signs of aging are caused by the sun.


What kind of sunscreen should people with dark skin use?


One of the biggest issues with sunscreen and darker skin is that a lot of formulas tend to leave a white cast or look ashy, even when they are fully blended in. Thankfully, though, a lot of innovation has happened in the sunscreen world and there are now a lot of formulas out there that work beautifully on darker skin. As a general rule of thumb, those with darker skin will want want to seek out chemical formulas. “Chemical sunscreens that contain avobenzone absorb into the skin and protect the skin by changing UV rays into heat, says Davidson. “These sunscreens tend to blend into darker skin better without leaving behind a white hue.”


A phenomenal choice is Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40. This is a top pick for deep skin tones because it is 100% invisible. No joke, this sunscreen is almost tricky to use because you won’t even see where it is once you blend it in! As mentioned above, Unseen is a clean chemical formula that uses avobenzone and homosalate to protect skin from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. It also has red algae in the formula to protect from blue light, which is the light that’s emitted from electronic devices like your phone and computer. This light is similar to UVA rays in that it also penetrates into deep layers of our skin and can cause damage like hyperpigmentation and dark spots.


One big caveat though: Don’t think mineral sunscreens can’t be used on darker skin tones! 100% Mineral Matte Screen SPF 40 is - like the name suggests - a completely mineral formula that used zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to protect skin from the sun, plus butterfly bush extract to protect from blue light. The formula itself comes in one translucent tint, which allows it to bypass the whole white cast problem you typically find with mineral sunscreens. If you have more sensitive skin or oily skin and you’re looking for a matte finish, then this guy is the way to go.


Finally, if you’re looking for an SPF to wear while working out, then Everyday Sunscreen SPF 50 is a great one. It’s a clean chemical formula that’s fast absorbing without leaving a heavy, white cast. It’s also water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, which means it won’t run into your eyes or leave white streaks behind when you really start sweating.


The bottom line...


The first fact you should remember: No matter what skin color you have, it’s absolutely imperative to wear sunscreen every single day to stay protected. It’s true that those with darker skin tones do have more built-in sun protection than those with fairer skin tones, but that sun protection is not nearly close enough to the amount you need to protect your skin from cancer and signs of aging. (Darker skin tones can have a built-in SPF of up to 10 that will protect them from a small percentage of the sun’s UVB rays...but the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t certify anything below SPF 15 with broad spectrum protection.) The fact remains that while those with lighter skin tones are more at risk for skin cancer, the skin cancer diagnoses and statistics in those with darker skin tones are often worse since it goes unchecked for so long.


The second fact you should remember: Not all sunscreens leave a white cast on dark skin tones. It’s been a long-perpetuated myth that sunscreen is the enemy for darker skin since it will look ashy and turn you into a ghost or cause flashback in photos. Formulas have become super innovative since those days, and thankfully Supergoop! has both chemical and mineral formulas that blend into your skin wonderfully, so all that’s left is your natural, beautiful self (and sun-protected skin, of course!).

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