Darker skin tones don’t need sunscreen: fact or fiction?
There’s a common debate on the subject of whether women with darker skin should wear sunscreen, or leave it to our naturally built-in UV defence systems to protect against harmful rays. We confer with US-board certified dermatologist Dr. Carlos A. Charles (who is also one of our co-founders) to set the record straight once and for all. We’ll also be covering how best to use sunscreen on a daily basis, the impact it could have on vitamin D levels, and the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen formulations.
But first, how does sunscreen even work?
It’s important to first note the differences between UVA and UVB damage. UVA is responsible for premature skin ageing and skin cancer development, as it penetrates deeper into the skin than surface-burning UVB. Although that’s not to say UVB can’t also lead to certain forms of skin cancer or other unwanted mutations, its primary damage is burning the outer layers of skin, resulting in redness, blistering, or peeling. Here’s one way to differentiate the two—UVA for ageing, and UVB for burning.
The number beside the ‘SPF’ acronym for ‘sun protection factor,’ whether it be 15, 30, or 50, represents how long the sunscreen can protect against UVB damage. Broad-spectrum sunscreens will also have ‘+’ symbols next to this number, and they refer to the amount of UVA protection available to that particular sunscreen. Keep in mind, these numbers are developed in a controlled lab environments, with the assumption of correct application. Another thing to think about, is that the intensity of UVB rays can actually vary over the day—so your sunscreen may not always be as effective as promised, depending on these factors. Regardless of the variables, Dr. Charles recommends a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, just to be on the safe side.
Exploring the sun’s impact on different skin tones.
The appearance of sunburn in women of colour will depend on their phototype; aka skin tone. Women with lighter (yet pigmented) skin tones often burn similarly to that of white women; experiencing redness, blistering, and eventual peeling, as well as varying forms of hyperpigmentation in sun-exposed areas. As for women with darker complexions, sunburn may simply present itself in a deepening of the skin tone. The sensation of sunburn, however, stays relatively universal with sensations of itching, discomfort, and occasional pain in extreme cases. If your sunburn ever appears severe, we would recommend promptly visiting your dermatologist.
Do darker skin tones really have built-in sun protection?
It’s true that darker skin tones do have some inherent protection against the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays, but this protection can vary wildly among skin tones, and may not even be consistently uniform throughout the body. Generally speaking, the pigment in dark skin (known as melanin), can offer protection against redness and discomfort, but it isn’t enough to warrant skipping the sun block.
So where did this myth come from? It’s hard to say where this skincare myth originated, but we think it may have something to do with the fact that the effects of sun damage in darker skin tones aren’t immediately apparent. However, we do know that the long-term effects of ultraviolet damage can include decreased collagen production, textural changes, hyperpigmentation, and even skin cancer.
What’s the best way for women of colour to wear sunscreen?
Using a daily moisturiser with SPF 30 or higher should always be a non-negotiable, if anything, to prevent against the effects of chronic UV light exposure—especially during the warmer months. If you know you’ll be outside for a few hours, swimming, or working out, make sure to reapply your broad-spectrum sunscreen every 2 hours to stay protected. Just don’t forget to double cleanse at the end of the day to completely cleanse your pores of all product, pollution, and debris.
Finding the balance between sun protection and vitamin D synthesis.
Vitamin D synthesis is essential for happy, healthy cells to remain calm, hydrated, and replenished; without it, our skin can become dehydrated, dull, and flaky. Ultraviolet light exposure assists our body in making vitamin D, so when we’re wearing sunscreen, we’re somewhat impairing this process. Those with higher levels of melanin naturally have a harder time absorbing this essential vitamin, as the UV protection is already higher than other skin tones.
To bridge this gap and find the perfect balance of protection and nutrients, we recommend taking your vitamin D from dietary or supplement sources. Foods such as fatty fish; salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, and eel are excellent choices, even if they’re the canned variety. Egg yolks are another rich source of vitamin D, along with fortified orange juice, cereals, and milks. If you’re a vegan, not to worry! Contact your healthcare professional for a prescription for vitamin D3 supplementation, and they’ll discuss the best options for you. As with many things, too much vitamin D can also lead to other health problems, so moderation is key.
Physical or chemical sunscreens; which is better for darker skin tones?
There are two types of blocking agents against damaging ultraviolet light; chemical and physical. Chemical blockers essentially absorb the energy from UV rays before they make contact with the skin, whereas physical blockers work by halting and dispersing the rays away from the skin. These two mechanisms are both effective in terms of protection, however, physical sunscreens are generally the better option for sensitive skin types, as the likelihood of an allergic reaction or irritation rash is minimal. Additionally, chemical blockers take a little longer to kick into action after application, compared to the physical alternative.
Why the white cast?
As so many products in the beauty industry are catered to lighter skin tones, sunscreen is often no exception. A lot of sunscreen formulations aren’t transparent, and when applied to darker skin, can be made all the more apparent. Physical sunscreens are the main culprit for showing this unappealing ‘white cast,’ due to ingredients such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Of course, this can make wearing daily sunscreen an issue, especially as we just want to look like our best selves (without our sunscreen turning our complexion grey). There is a silver lining though! Some physical sunscreens have actually been formulated using smaller particles, and most broad-spectrum sunscreens containing both physical and chemical blocking agents make for a more elegant finish—perfect for women with darker skin tones.
So there you have it; even though melanin-rich skin inherently contains up to the power of an SPF 11 sunscreen, wearing a daily broad-spectrum SPF 30 is still essential to prevent long-term sun damage. Depending on your skin type and preferences, opting for a broad-spectrum formulation can protect you against the detrimental effects of premature ageing, collagen loss, textural abnormalities, and of course, the big one—skin cancer. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and the option for some extra vitamin D synthesis help is always there to support you. Stay safe everyone, and grab that sunscreen!