You’ve likely heard time and time again that you need to wear sunscreen every single day. Personally, even though I’ve read (and written) numerous stories on the importance of using sunscreen, as a Black woman and beauty editor I’ve been let down by formulas that leave my melanated skin looking ashy, chalky or dry. Yet, I recognize that wearing SPF is key to protecting myself from both premature aging and worse, skin cancer.
Still, the rumor that “Black people don’t need to wear sunscreen” persists. So much so that I asked Dr. Sumayah Jamal, MD-PhD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York, to clarify. “Melanin provides an SPF anywhere from a level of 1.5 to 4. While skin of color takes longer to burn, this does not mean that it cannot burn,” she explains. “SPF also only refers to UVB protection; however, UVA also damages skin.” To protect against both types of rays, Dr. Jamal recommends a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher.
A broad-spectrum formula that you like enough to apply daily can be lifesaving. Skin cancer occurs in all skin tones, and “those with skin of color are more likely to die from the deadliest form of skin cancer called melanoma,” says Dr. Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, a board-certified dermatologist in California. Underestimating the risk contributes to the higher death rate among people of color, who “may not receive a thorough skin cancer screening due to this misconception,” Dr. Badreshia-Bansal says.
Which Ingredients to Look For (And Avoid)
When it comes to active ingredients, Dr. Jamal prefers physical sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) over chemical sunscreens (such as avobenzone). Physical sunscreens are typically less irritating to sensitive skin than chemical ingredients, but often leave a chalky cast which can become worse with sweating. “When I test physical [sunscreens] that show good transparency initially, I’ll put them on before a workout to determine if they also pass the ‘sweat test,’” Dr. Jamal says. If your skin isn’t sensitive to them, chemical sunscreens can provide a more transparent option (many popular formulas are made with a blend of both chemical and physical ingredients to offer the best of both worlds).
According to Dr. Badreshia-Bansal, the ingredients to avoid are any that can cause allergic or irritant reactions, which can result in hyperpigmentation—the number-one concern among her patients of color. “If you have sensitive skin, choose [a sunscreen with] calming ingredients such as green tea and niacinamide,” she advises, along with moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid.
Best Sunscreens for Skin of Color
While the options for skin of color aren’t 100% there yet, a few brands have started to get things right. Over a two-week span, I tested a variety of sunscreens—here’s what made the cut.
1. Obagi Medical Professional C Broad Spectrum SPF 30Buy now with free delivery
Dark spots have really started to become a concern of mine, so I’m always on the hunt for products that help address them. This smooth, balm-like sunscreen combines UV-blocking sunscreens with free radical–scavenging antioxidants (a.k.a. vitamin C) to help both protect and brighten. Anticipate a matte finish just right for humid summer days.
2. Supergoop! Glowscreen SPF 40Buy now with free delivery
Initially I was nervous about the tint. For the record, I am brown not beige, however every other editor I know is O-B-S-E-S-S-E-D with this launch so I had high hopes. They were 100% correct; this pearlescent formula cream left me looking glow-y, not greasy. Key ingredients like niacinamide help even out tone, while sea lavender and cocoa peptides provide antioxidant protection.
3. Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF 30Buy now with free delivery
For my first time using a powder sunscreen, I was pleasantly surprised. This self-dispensing mineral powder relies on titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to help reflect and scatter UV rays, while mica acts like a natural filter. “I like brush-on SPF for reapplication when outdoors,” Dr. Badreshia-Bansal shares. “They tend to be mineral-based, hypoallergenic and an easy tool for reapplication especially when you already have makeup on.”
4. ILIA Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40Buy now with free delivery
This skin tint goes on like a liquid BB cream but dries down like a lightweight foundation. The plumping and hydrating formula softens imperfections thanks to niacinamide, plant-based squalane and hyaluronic acid. I confirmed if a tinted moisturizer (as opposed to a dedicated sunscreen) was cool with Dr. Jamal. Her tip: Apply generously. “In theory the tint would not affect efficacy but people may apply too little for it to be effective as a sunscreen,” she says.
5. EltaMD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46Buy now with free delivery
Dermatologists and editors alike have been raving about this sunscreen for years. The formula was a bit thicker than the others I tested, but once I rubbed it in, it pretty much disappeared. “This is a pretty good physical sunscreen for skin of color—and leaves more of a matte finish,” adds Dr. Jamal. Bonus points for the oil-free formula designed for both acne-prone and sensitive skin.
6. Dermalogica Invisible Defense SPF 30Buy now with free delivery
Since COVID-19, I’ve been reading up about the impact blue light has on skin—and I have been spending more time on my laptop and phone. This fast-absorbing, lightweight, moisturizing sunscreen uses antioxidants and minerals to protect against four major skin concerns: UV rays, blue light, free radical damage and pollution. I’m definitely planning on keeping this sunscreen in the rotation.
7. Soleil Toujours SPF 30 Set & Protect MicroMistBuy now with free delivery
Consider this love at first mist. This 70%+ certified organic micro mist is formulated with clear, broad-spectrum UV protection. You can use it alone or on top of makeup, and it’s super portable and mess-free. “The best SPF is the one you will use,” Dr. Badreshia-Bansal tells me, but take care when applying spray sunscreen. In effort not to miss any spots, she suggests applying them on your hand first, then rubbing them in.
8. COOLA SPF 30 Day Dream Mineral PrimerBuy now with free delivery
During this summer of social distancing, opportunities to put on actual makeup are very few and far between. So, I’m extremely appreciative of this makeup-like, silky primer that glides on my skin. Kudos to this fast-absorbing, all-in-one formula that works to blur fine lines, even skin tone and minimize the look of pores.