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Which sunscreens work best on darker skin tones?

If you’ve read our latest blog post, you’ll know that sunscreen is important for everyone, not just those with lighter skin tones. The world of sunscreen can be confusing but we’re here to help you make sense of it all. There are so many sunscreens out there and it can be hard to find one that works well for you. This post goes through some useful things to consider when buying sunscreen to help you choose the right one for you.

2 rows of different sunscreens. A Black person's hand is pickung up one of the bottles of sunscren
Image from NHS UK

So, you want to buy some sunscreen?

Choosing a new sunscreen is very similar to choosing a new body lotion or face moisturiser. Your personal preferences can influence which sunscreen you choose. How a sunscreen feels on your skin and how well it works are big contributors to how people use sunscreen. A study by Xu et al. found that how the sunscreen looks and feels on skin when it has been applied (‘cosmetic elegance’ ) was one of the biggest reasons that the study participants did not like or use sunscreen (1).


In Xu et al’s study, the ‘cosmetic elegance’ of sunscreen was made up of a number of subgroups including:

  • Absorption rate

  • Moisturizing ability

  • Level of greasiness

  • Thickness of the cream

  • The presence of a white cast

  • Fragrance

Other features such as price, Sun Protection Factor (SPF) level, and the broadness of the spectrum of radiation that the sunscreen protects against were also determined to be big contributors in choosing a sunscreen (2). All of these features are important to consider but for people with darker skin tones, however, the presence of a white cast is one of the biggest reasons to not use a particular sunscreen.


What is a white cast?

10% of the participants in Xu et al’s study reported that they disliked using sunscreen because it was ‘too white’ or left a white residue on their skin. This residue is commonly known as a white cast. But, what is a white cast?

3 panels, each showing a section of skin and how it is affected by sun rays with no protection, mineral sunscreen protection and chemical sunscree protection
Image from BC Laser & Skincare Clinic

There are 2 main types of sunscreens: chemical and physical (also known as mineral). You can also have a mixture of both. Our last blog post has some more information on how these different types of sunscreen work. As a quick refresher though, physical or mineral sunscreens use ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide nanoparticles to reflect the sun’s rays (3). The oxides used in physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and are responsible for the white or sometimes blue-ish residue/cast. As chemical sunscreens are not formulated with zinc or titanium oxide, they do not tend to leave a white cast. It is worth noting though, that some of the most commonly used UV filers in chemical sunscreens have recently been identified as harmful environmental pollutants for marine life (4). If you plan on swimming in open water, sunscreens containing chemicals like oxybenzone are not recommended for use. Instead, look out for coral reef or marine-life-friendly sunscreens.


Which sunscreens leave no or minimal white cast on our skin?


a cartoon hand of a Black person holding a bottle of sunscreen
Image from Healthline.com

Many of the popular sunscreens are physical sunscreens and, unfortunately, leave a white cast when they are used. So which sunscreens leave no or minimal white cast on darker skin tones? We've put together a list of options for you to try out, including some popular Korean and Japanese brands. This list is not exhaustive. Branching out and trying sunscreens not on this list is encouraged - we can't wait to hear of any recommendations you have that we missed.


The top three popular Western sunscreens for people with darker skin tones are chemical sunscreens (2). Each option is linked to a review by a Black person so that you can see for yourself how the sunscreen looks when applied on darker skin tones.

o SPF 30

o Broad spectrum

o SPF 30

o Protects mainly against UVB rays

o Water and sweat resistant for up to 40 minutes

o Coral reef friendly (suitable for swimming)

o SPF 30

o Broad spectrum

o Water-resistant for up to 80 minutes

o Coral reef friendly (suitable for swimming)


A cartoon Balck woman applying sunscreen to her arm whilst sitting in a beahc char, alone at the beach
Image from Healthline.com

Some other recommendations are:

o SPF 50+

o Broad Spectrum

o Water, sweat, and sand resistant

o Fragrance-free

o SPF 50+

o Broad spectrum

o SPF 50+

o Broad spectrum

o Fragrance-free

o Water-resistant for up to 4 hours

o Coral reef friendly (suitable for swimming)

o SPF 50+

o Broad Spectrum

o Fragrance-free

o Note: a personal favourite. It also comes as a solid sun-stick for easy reapplication

o SPF 50+

o Broad spectrum

o Alcohol & fragrance-free

o Note: It also comes as a solid sun-stick for easy reapplication

o SPF 50+

o Broad spectrum

o Vegan-friendly and Hypoallergenic

o SPF 50

o Broad spectrum

o Vegan friendly

o Coral reef friendly (suitable for swimming)

o Note: the European formula has been altered from the original Japanese formula. People tend to prefer the original Japanese version of this product.

o SPF 50

o Broad spectrum

o Fragrance-free

o SPF 50+

o Broad spectrum

o Fragrance-free

o Hypoallergenic

o Note: also has a spray mist version - Ambre Solaire Over Makeup Super UV Protection Mist


Finding your perfect sunscreen might take a few tries. Experimentation is a key part of being a Black woman in science, after all. What works for one person might not work for you so try not to be discouraged if you don't immediately love the first sunscreen you pick up.


How much sunscreen is enough sunscreen?

Getting a good sunscreen is only the first step of effective sun protection. Using the right amount of sunscreen is key to making sure that you are fully protected from harmful UV rays. Most people use too little sunscreen which means that are not properly protected (5).


To get the best use out of your sunscreen, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you (6):

A hand  next to a bottle of sunscreen, with two fingers that have sunscreen on themoutstretched.
Image from Freepik. The two-finger guidance for the recommended minimum amount of sunscreen
  • Apply sunscreen every day (even during the colder months and when you are indoors)

  • Put sunscreen on at least 15 minutes before sun exposure

  • Reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours or immediately after swimming

    • at least 3 applications of sunscreen within a day has been shown to provide the best level of protection (7)

  • Use at least 2 fingers worth of sunscreen for your face and neck

  • Don’t forget to use sunscreen on your body as well, especially your hands

    • Using moisturiser with sunscreen in it or using your least favourite sunscreen as your body sunscreen are great ways to make sure that the rest of your skin is also protected

Other useful skincare tips that I use to make the most out of my sunscreen include:

  • Patch-testing every new sunscreen on a small section of skin that is not usually exposed to the sun.

  • This helps to check how your skin reacts to the new product. Try to do a patch test at least 24 hours before you start using the product properly.

  • Applying sunscreen as the last step of my morning skincare routine.

  • Making sure that anything I put on my face before the sunscreen has completely dried before applying the sunscreen on top.

Regular use of sunscreen can quickly become expensive and time-consuming but ultimately, it’s worth it. Our melanin is great at helping to protect us against harmful UV rays, but, just like us, it could always use some help!


By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer


References

1. Xu S, Kwa M, Agarwal A, Rademaker A, Kundu R V. Sunscreen Product Performance and Other Determinants of Consumer Preferences. JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(8):920–7.

2. Song H, Beckles A, Salian P, Porter ML. Sunscreen recommendations for patients with skin of color in the popular press and in the dermatology clinic. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2021;7(2):165–70.

3. Smijs TG, Pavel S. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. Nanotechnol Sci Appl. 2011;4(1):95.

4. Long A, Long AT, Murphy LC. Are sunscreens as transparent as they seem, or have they a murky factor? Clin Exp Dermatol. 2023;48(6):697–8.

5. Julian AK, Tribby CP, Perna FM. Visual Aids for Sunscreen Application: A mixed methods study. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2023;39(1):21–6.

6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to apply sunscreen. Available from: https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/shade-clothing-sunscreen/how-to-apply-sunscreen

7. Heerfordt IM, Torsnes LR, Philipsen PA, Wulf HC. Sunscreen use optimized by two consecutive applications. PLoS One. 2018;13(3):e0193916.

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