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For those who think their skin color exempts them from having to worry about sun protection, dermatologists have a message: The sun’s damaging rays don’t discriminate. “Ultraviolet (UV) rays are color blind, so they hit all skin with equal strength,” says Maritza Perez, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine and member of the Skin of Color Society Board of Directors.
Ethnicity alone doesn’t determine your need for sun protection—your skin tone does. “Darker skin contains more melanin [pigment that gives skin its color] than lighter skin, and that helps block the rays from penetrating and doing as much damage,” Perez says. “But even the darkest Black skin provides only about an SPF 13. If you get enough sun exposure, you’ll get skin damage, and possibly even skin cancer.”
And for those who identify as Black, Asian, or Hispanic but have skin on the lighter end of the spectrum, the risk might be nearly equal to that of many whites.
Sun, Sunburn, and Skin Damage
A history of sunburn is linked to a higher risk of developing skin cancer, and people of all ethnicities are susceptible to burning. In a 2018 study published in JAMA Dermatology, researchers surveyed 31,162 people about their sun protection habits. They found that 13 percent of Blacks and 30 percent of Hispanics had experienced sunburn in the past year. Redness, the telltale sign of sunburn in whites, may not be as evident on darker skin, but skin can still feel hot, tight, and painful.
And even if you don’t burn, unprotected time in the sun can still result in damage. “Any acquired tan, either in white or brown skin, is a sign that the skin being damaged by the sun,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.
The UV rays that cause a tan or burn can also make your skin look older. “Photodamage in people of color leads to sagging of the skin, loss of volume in the face, and hyperpigmentation,” says Jeanine Downie, M.D,. a dermatologist in private practice in Montclair, N.J. “While people with lighter skin tones tend to see fine lines and wrinkles show up first, people of color will see changes in pigmentation that lead to dark patches [melasma] and uneven skin tone as a result of sun damage.”
Skin Cancer Risk
Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics do have significantly lower incidence of skin cancer compared to whites. But they aren’t immune. For example, in a study published in the journal Cancer Causes & Control, Asian men who had the most sun exposure in childhood had about a three-times greater risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer than isn’t usually fatal, but can be disfiguring) than those who got the least. Among Asian women in the study, those who got the most sun over their lifetime had about a 4½ times greater risk.
And the rate of melanoma, a potentially fatal type of skin cancer, is still 5 in 100,000 for Hispanics and 1 in 100,000 for non-Hispanic Blacks, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, compared to 28 in 100,000 for non-Hispanic whites, according to the American Cancer Society.
Skin cancer is often diagnosed at a later stage in people of color than in whites, partially because of a lack of awareness about the risks and that skin cancer can look much different and be found in different places on the body (such as the palms and soles of the feet). “Even doctors often don’t think about skin cancer when they’re treating people of color,” Downie says. The outcome is that skin cancer can be harder to treat and, in the case of melanoma, be more deadly in non-whites.
“I think perhaps the most important conversation to have around skin cancer is the disparities that exist within it,” says Jenna Lester, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Skin of Color Program at the University of California at San Fancisco. “Why are there such drastic differences between mortality rates even though skin cancer is much less common in Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians versus in whites?”
You Can Find a Sunscreen That Suits You
According to a recent Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 2,007 U.S. adults, 61 percent of Blacks and 23 percent of Hispanics said they never wear sunscreen. Most experts agree that’s not a good move. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher every day.
People who have darker skin—and the slight protection that extra melanin provides—might be tempted to skimp. But even if you don’t burn and aren’t worried about skin cancer, sunscreen is the key to keeping skin healthy. “The bulk of the benefit to wearing sunscreen in patients with brown skin is that it helps minimize skin discoloration and premature wrinkling,” says Crystal Aguh, M.D., director of the Ethnic Skin Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “Skin discoloration is among the most common complaints in patients with brown skin and regular use of sunscreen is critical component of the treatment regimen.”
One barrier to sunscreen use: finding one that works for your skin. “The biggest concern I hear from my patients with darker skin is about the cosmetic appearance of the sunscreen once it’s applied,” says Lester. “Too many products give their skin a light cast.”
Her advice: “It may take a bit of trial and error.” For that reason, she suggests sampling less expensive drugstore brands so that you can try several options.
In CR’s sunscreen tests, our professional panel of sensory testers found that the following highly protective sunscreens in our ratings left little film on skin and didn’t leave it looking chalky: Banana Boat Simply Protect Sport Spray SPF 50, Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Ultra Radiance Lotion SPF 30, and Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport Ultra Light Spray SPF 30.
Some recent studies have called into question the safety of certain chemical active sunscreen ingredients—particularly oxybenzone. This UV filter has been shown to absorb through the skin, and there is some evidence—all of it from animal studies—that oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can mimic or interfere with the body’s own hormones.
Experts caution that this news shouldn’t dissuade you from the importance of using sunscreen, however. “We know that UV exposure is a risk factor for developing certain types of skin cancer, whereas we don’t know the implications of these studies yet,” says Lester.
An option is to seek out a natural sunscreen, which contains mineral ingredients such titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that aren’t absorbed through the skin. But for people with darker skin, mineral sunscreens can leave them with a whitish, ashy tone. Plus, in our testing, mineral sunscreen consistently rate lower for sun protection.
If you do prefer a mineral sunscreen, the highest-scoring product in CR’s tests that didn’t leave a white cast on skin was thinkbaby lotion SPF 50+ with zinc oxide. It left just a slight greasy film on skin. It wasn’t among our top performers, however. In our testing, it provided less than half the SPF listed on the label, but did offer top-notch protection against UVA rays, which are primarily responsible for skin cancer and skin aging.
Whether you use sunscreen or not, though, you should take other sun protective measures. Cover up with clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, seek shade and, whenever possible, avoid the sun at midday when it’s at its peak strength.
Best Sunscreens for Dark Skin From CR’s Tests
These sunscreens, listed in alphabetical order, left little film on skin and didn’t leave skin looking white or chalky.
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