Sunscreen has long been considered a staple for fair-skinned folks, but oftentimes people with medium-to-dark skin have ignored it. In the past, it was widely believed that people with darker skin didn’t need to use sunscreen or take precautions when going out in the sun.
But today, dermatologists warn, failing to use sunscreen — regardless of how dark or fair your skin is — can have serious consequences.
Our skin color and tones are based on the amount of pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, we have. Dermatologists identify six different skin types that range from those with very little pigment to those with a lot of pigment, which results in darker skin tones.
“While it’s true that people with light skin are more prone to getting skin cancer, it’s important to realize that dark skin does not protect you from it,” says ays Dr. Liza McClellan-Moore, a board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Associates of Northern Virginia Centreville and Dermatology Associates of Northern Virginia Sterling.
“No matter what kind of pigment you have, you are still at risk of getting skin damage from sun exposure. And a tan is not, and never has been, protection from the sun.”
Throwing Shade at Tanning
When it comes to deeper skin tones, getting past the myth that sunscreen isn’t needed is often the biggest obstacle, and the chalky, ashy appearance some sunscreens leave behind doesn't help anything. But, as Dr. McClellan-Moore points out, while darker-skinned people are less likely to get skin cancer, they are more susceptible to develop it in places where their skin tone is lighter, such as on the palms of their hands, the soles of their feet and even under their fingernails and toenails.
“Part of the problem is that when skin cancer develops in very dark-skinned people, it oftentimes isn’t diagnosed until the cancer is in its later stages,” Dr. McClellan-Moore says. “This makes it more difficult to treat, and, if the cancer is melanoma, it can be deadly.”
“In addition, sun exposure can lead to premature aging, even in darker skin types. Uneven skin tone and premature wrinkles resulting from sun exposure can make people with darker skin types age prematurely. I emphasize to all my patients that sunblock has both medical and cosmetic benefits for your skin. Wearing sunblock daily is crucial to obtaining a beautiful, even glow to the face,” she adds.
While monthly self-examinations and an annual full-body exam by a dermatologist can find damage once it has begun, the key is to avoid suffering skin damage in the first place. That means darker-skinned people should follow the same protocol as their fair-skinned counterparts: Avoid sun exposure during peak times between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is hottest, and make sure you’re properly protecting your skin every time you go outside.
That’s where sunscreen comes in.
“Sunscreens have changed to accommodate different skin types,” Dr. McClellan-Moore says. “In the past, a lot of people with darker skin tones didn’t want to wear sunscreen because it made the skin look white and chalky. Fortunately, sunscreens have advanced, and not all of them leave you with an ashy appearance.”
Today’s formulas labeled as "clear" or "sheer" are the ideal sunscreens for dark skin, offering transparency as well as protection. Gel sunscreens are also a great option. On the other end of the spectrum, some higher-end brands even come in tinted formulas to complement dark skin tones.
The Right Sunscreen for Darker Skin
With so many choices, knowing where to start your search can be a challenge. To begin with, you want to consider the SPF, or sun protection factor. This measures how well a sunscreen protects skin from dangerous UVB rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, people with darker skin tones should use an SPF of 15 or more.
Another thing to look for in sunscreen is to make sure the label says it is a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen. This means that it protects you from both types of ultraviolet rays — UVA and UVB. Also look for a sunscreen that is water resistant. (New FDA guidelines prevent brands from claiming to be waterproof because they create a false sense of security that often leads to sunburns and skin damage.) If you get in the water or work up a sweat, no matter what sunscreen you’re using, you’ll need to reapply.
Finally, make sure you’re checking the ingredients, so you know you’re getting a safe product. Avoid any product that has retinyl palmitate, which could actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. Furthermore, oxybenzone is an ingredient that has been linked to hormone disruption, so be sure to avoid any products containing it.
Instead, look for sunscreens containing one of more of the following ingredients:
- titanium dioxide
- Mexoryl S
All these ingredients are safe and effective at providing skin protection.
Safe Sun Practices
Adopting safe sun practices becomes increasingly more important as skin cancer is on the rise.
“You also want to practice other types of skin protection, such as wearing clothing like long-sleeved shirts, pants and a wide-brimmed hat to cover skin that would be exposed to the sun,” Dr. McClellan-Moore says. “And you need to make sure that, once you find the sunscreen that’s right for you, that you’re using it every time you go outside.”
Applying sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside and then reapplying it every two hours can help keep your skin from getting damaged by the sun.
Also, don't forget to schedule an annual skin examination to catch any dermatological issues in their early stages.