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Best sunscreen for dark skin tones, according to dermatologists

Medical experts and beauty editors recommend sunscreens that don’t leave a white cast on their melanin-rich skin.
Woman sitting on beach and sunscreens. Best sunscreens for dark skin tones 2020, according to dermatologists. Shop mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide from Neutrogena, Supergoop, Glossier, Black Girl Sunscreen, Ren?e Rouleau, UrbanSkinRX and more.
Aesthetically, common issues Black people face when they don't wear sunscreen are large pore sizes, patchy pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, says Jeanine Downie, board-certified dermatologist.Black Girl Sunscreen; Renee Rouleau; Colorescience; Supergoop; Bolden; Getty Images

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There's a plethora of different types of sunscreen to shop online and in-person — spray sunscreen, acne-prone sunscreen, sunscreen for indoors and so on. The only problem? My favorite sunblock (which I've been purchasing since 2018), recently changed its formula in order to abide by Hawaii's reef-safe mandate. The mattifying sunscreen formula I loved no longer disappears into my caramel complexion and now leaves behind a dreaded white cast. Understanding the importance of wearing sunscreen, I began searching for a replacement. After spending weeks testing out new formulas, I wasn't totally in love with any of the options I came across because they either didn't work with my oily skin or made me look like a ghost.

Realizing white cast from sunscreen isn't an isolated occurrence, I felt compelled to reach out to a few Black beauty editors, and board-certified dermatologists, to determine the best sunscreens for darker skin tones. Of course, the medical experts we consulted make a case for why Black people should apply sunscreen — and their reasoning goes beyond the risk of skin cancer.

The sun's rays don't discriminate, but some of the SPFs on the market do.

Nerisha Penrose, Assistant Editor, ELLE

The natural SPF protection from your complexion and the barrier of your clothes aren't enough to protect against UVA rays, which increase signs of aging, and UVB rays, which cause skin burns — applying sunscreen is a must. The most SPF that skin itself can offer — regardless of skin tone — is about SPF 13, according to Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York. Consumers can purchase clothing and hats with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). Todd Minars, MD, a board-certified dermatologist previously told us: “UPF is a rating that's used to measure the amount of UVA and UVB radiation that comes from the sun and is able to penetrate a person's clothing and reach their skin.” Non-UPF clothes offer no more than SPF 7 protection, and drops down to SPF 3 once you begin sweating, said Jeanine Downie, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Image Dermatology in New Jersey. Yes, you still need to wear sunscreen under your face mask. Relying solely on your face mask will do "very little good in terms of sun protection."

Beauty experts also helped me understand why Black people might believe they don’t need sunscreen — and what’s the minimum SPF level necessary to protect ourselves from the sun's harsh rays. The pros also weigh in and share their go-to sunscreen recommendations that won’t leave behind a white cast on darker skin. Shop their picks below, which include Black-owned beauty brands.

SKIP AHEAD Best sunscreens for darker skin tones

Do you need sunscreen if you have dark skin?

According to medical experts we consulted, the answer is resoundingly yes. "Anybody that has skin needs sunscreen, and that is every day, rain or shine, January through December, regardless of your ethnicity," said Downie. Henry added: "I always tell my patients your melanin is beautiful and keeps you from aging as rapidly, but it's not perfect. Not only do you get skin cancer when you have skin of color, but the outcomes are often worse."

Henry said one contributing factor is a general lack of awareness about skin cancer in the Black community in the U.S. "A lot of patients just aren't paying attention to it — they're showing up at later stages and that really harms us," she said. Maya Allen, the beauty editor of Marie Claire, pointed out a study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It found that when Black people are diagnosed with skin cancer, “they are much more likely to die from it due to delay in detection or presentation” given their lack of awareness and medical resources, including early detection and preventative measures.

A 2019 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reached similar conclusions about the skin cancer melanoma and how it affected Black Americans. The CDC found a lower rate of cases for Black Americans and a lower survival rate when compared to cases in non-Hispanic, white communities. The CDC advises Black Americans need greater access to information about melanoma, while health care providers need more awareness about the risk for melanoma amongst Black Americans.

There is all this foolishness about 'Black don't crack' and I find it really annoying. The reality is that Black can and does crack.

Jeanine Downie, board-certified dermatologist

Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, CNS, debunked the notion that we don't need to wear sunscreen for a story on NBC Know Your Value. "All skin tones must be protected from the sun to prevent damage, with the same protection needed for darker and lighter skin types," she wrote. Fernstrom said melanin-rich skin tends to deal with discoloration, and sun exposure can worsen dark spots' appearance.

According to two editors we consulted, there is a misconception in the Black community that we don't need to wear sunscreen. "I'm adamant about wearing sunscreen because for so long, Black people were under the false impression that we didn't need sunscreen, which is a total myth I wish I could put on a billboard," said Allen. Angel Lenise, video supervisor at ELLE.com and co-founder of beauty retailer AMP Beauty LA, said growing up in Texas as a Black woman, she didn't realize sunscreen is essential for Black people to apply outside of summer swimming.

Lenise noted the misconception of not needing sunscreen may also stem from previous generations in the South who had limited access to pools and beaches, and assumed they only needed sunscreen while swimming. The effects of the sun like burning and age spots made the need for sunscreen quite clear for people with light skin. But because Black people don't always deal with those effects, it wasn't as clear that we couldn't be so nonchalant about applying sun protection. “There's also this notion that you don't wanna be in the sun too long because you don't want to get too dark,” Lenise added, noting that it’s part of “what has been embedded in us as people, in terms of colorism and self-hatred: The lighter you are, the easier you will have it."

What SPF is best for dark skin?

The dermatologists we consulted recommend a minimum of SPF 30 — as does the American Academy of Dermatology. However, Henry recommends you apply SPF 50 if you're outside for more than an hour. You should also reapply that sunscreen every two hours — more frequently if you’re sweating or taking a dip in water because it rinses off and the efficacy breaks down.

So, what happens if you don’t wear sunscreen? "There is all this foolishness about 'Black don't crack' and I find it really annoying. The reality is that Black can and does crack," said Downie. Aesthetically, she said common issues Black people face when they don't wear sunscreen are large pore sizes, patchy pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.

What causes white cast in sunscreen — and how to avoid it?

While sunscreen is essential to protect against sun damage, those ingredients weren't always designed with Black people in mind. When Chloe Hall shops for sunscreen, she looks for options that won't leave behind a white cast, which has been a "major problem" for her. "I want a sunscreen that can blend naturally with all skin tones," said Hall, the beauty director of ELLE. Nerisha Penrose, an assistant editor at ELLE, added: "The sun's rays don't discriminate, but some of the SPFs on the market do."

"A lot of sunscreens have been inelegant" because they are chalky and make Black people look ashy and ghost-like, Henry said, adding that mineral sunscreens, opaque physical blockers sitting on top of the skin and reflecting light, typically leave behind a white cast. "That's why chemical sunscreens were created — these chemicals bond to the skin and convert UV light into heat," said Henry. She explained that mineral sunscreens have become "a lot more elegant on the skin" because they are micronized, or made with smaller particles, and are thus less visible on the skin. "Now we have sunscreens that you really can't see on darker skin types," she said.

We asked these dermatologists and beauty editors to share their favorite sunscreens that blend seamlessly into melanin-rich skin. Their recommendations range from a tinted mineral sunscreen to 2-in-1 products that simplify their morning beauty routines. Shop the best sunscreens for Black people in 2020 that won't leave behind a ghost-like finish to your skin.

Best sunscreen for darker skin tones

1. Black Girl Sunscreen

"Ask any Black girl to show you her beauty staples and I guarantee you'll see this sunscreen," said Penrose. "The Black Girl Sunscreen was made for us and by us." Penrose, who has dry skin, appreciates the hydrating and vegan ingredients found in the sunscreen, including avocado and jojoba oils. Hall began using this sunscreen after Penrose recommended it to her. "It's ultra-sheer and never leaves me with a weird white cast. Plus, I love that it's packed with cocoa butter and avocado oil so it's super nourishing," she said. Lenise also uses this SPF and calls the formula "great" and "amazing" because she doesn't get a white cast when she uses this sunscreen. "Everyone should absolutely believe the hype of Black Girl Sunscreen," said Allen, who added the "brand is normalizing inclusive sunscreen that works with our skin, not against it — white residue is not welcome here."

2. Renée Rouleau Weightless Protection SPF 30

Penrose began using Renée Rouleau Weightless Protection SPF 30 at the beginning of quarantine in March, "and it's held me down ever since." "As the name suggests, it glides on like a dream and doesn't feel too cakey on the skin, and doubles as a moisturizer or primer, especially in the summer," she said. The vegan sunscreen offers UVA and UVB protection, green tea soothes your complexion and licorice extract helps calm inflammation.

3. Glossier Invisible Shield

Nykia Spradley, commerce editor at Allure.com, said she wears sunscreen whenever she's outdoors and admitted she's "trying to be better" about wearing SPF indoors. "I really feel like it's the easiest and most effective way to stay looking young, that's why I make it a priority," she told us. Spradley recommended Glossier Invisible Shield for daily use because it "feels weightless" and plays nicely with her skin care products, including moisturizer. Glossier said this SPF sports an "antioxidant complex" of vitamin E and vitamin P, along with broccoli and aloe leaf extracts to help fight free radicals.

4. Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen

"I'm not a fan of the thick, weighty feel of classic sunscreens, so this light-as-a-feather formula changed everything for me once I experienced its sensorial, gel-based texture that sinks into the skin so seamlessly," said Allen. Spradley wants her sunscreen to be sheer so she doesn't have to "rub extra hard" for it to blend into her skin. "I don't want to see any traces of it if I'm wearing it alone," she said. Another non-negotiable? SPF 30 or higher and mineral sunscreen. She likes to apply this SPF 40 mineral sunscreen because it glides on clear and she said it's "a win all around, even when my skin is a bit more tanned." Henry also recommended this sunscreen because "it's literally unseen and clear from the offset — it looks like a makeup primer when you apply it," she said.

5. Supergoop! Everyday Play SPF 50

Lenise prefers Supergoop! Everyday Play, a broad-spectrum sunscreen that she applies to her face and body. "Normally the higher the SPF, probably the thicker the consistency is because it offers and affords you more protection. This is the highest SPF I have at home and it's still no (white) cast at all," she said. Sunflower extract, which is rich in antioxidants and helps protect your skin against environmental damage, while rosemary leaf extract has antioxidants to calm your complexion. It's a fragrance-, oil-, cruelty- and gluten-free sunscreen that's water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and it works on all skin types.

6. Bolden SPF Brightening Moisturizer

Hall also recommended Bolden's 2-in-1 face moisturizer with SPF 30 because it hydrates, brightens and protects her skin from the sun or, as Hall said, "it does it all." Vitamin C evens skin tone, squalane improves texture and fine lines while safflower oil calms inflammation and hydrates. Prioritize supporting Black-owned businesses? Rest easy: Bolden was created by two Black women with melanin-rich skin in mind.

7. Unsun Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Hall called Unsun her "favorite mineral-tinted sunscreen." Katonya Breaux, Frank Ocean's mom, created the line of tinted sunscreen with darker skin tones in mind. The company said the shade Medium/Dark works for olive-to-chocolate complexions and offers a sheer wash of coverage to your skin. Shea butter and coconut, safflower plus olive oils keep your skin well-moisturized and aloe leaf juice calms inflammation. The sunscreen works for all skin types, including sensitive skin, and if you value clean and natural beauty products, consider that Unsun is available to shop at Credo Beauty, which said it banned products that include any of the 2,700 ingredients found on their "dirty list."

8. Urban Skin Rx Complexion Protection

"UrbanSkinRX is not a Black-owned brand but they still make products with us at top of mind. Their brand has a melanin expert and their products are really awesome," said Lenise. She called the sunscreen "super gentle" because it doesn't clog her pores and the consistency "feels like an amazing moisturizer." It's also fragrance-free, which is "super important" for her sensitive skin needs. A trio of good-for-you skin care ingredients — vitamin E, hyaluronic acid and squalane — hydrate, smooth and help correct uneven skin tone. The company said the vegan sunscreen isn't tested on animals and is paraben-, toxin-, sulfate- and fragrance-free.

9. SkinMedica's Total Defense + Repair SPF 34

Downie's "absolute favorite" sunscreen is SkinMedica Total Defense. It offers UVA/UVB protection and a blend of antioxidants to help protect against infrared waves, an invisible light ray that we interpret as heat. Downie said infrared heat — opening a hot oven, cooking pasta, walking down a hot sidewalk and having heat radiate up to your face and getting in a “super hot” car — can also affect your skin. “Infrared heat and infrared rays are harmful to our skin,” said Downie. She said “very few sunblocks” available have infrared protection, and the technology has only been available since about 2017. “Most sunblocks have anti-UVA and anti-UVB sun protection. This is one of the only sunblocks on the market that has anti-infrared protection,” she added. Downie also said it rubs into her brown skin without leaving behind a white cast. She appreciates it's hypoallergenic and fragrance-free, as well, because she has “extra sensitive skin” near her eyes, underlying eczema and acne-prone skin.

10. Colore Science Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50

“This is going to slow down your aging significantly,” said Downie. The brush-on sunscreen — available in both SPF 30 and SPF 50 options — is tinted and available in Tan and Deep. She said they last about a year, and her female clients “love them” because they can reapply the sunblock over their makeup or to tone down shine in the hot summer months. They also offer broad-spectrum coverage and are water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, making it a great option for sunny days by your local lake.

11. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Mist SPF 55

Allen likes to use this spray sunscreen for beach days because it offers SPF 55 and "takes the guesswork out of things when it comes to reapplying. It literally only takes two seconds to mist, then go on about your day," said Allen. Her go-to tip for staying protected while outdoors? Keep your sunscreen next to your beverage so that you don't forget to spritz. The lightweight, oil-free and non-comedogenic sunblock offers UVA/UVB protection.

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