Skincare experts advise us to use sunscreen every day as the single most important step you can take to care for your skin. However, the belief that people with darker skin tones do not need sunscreen is a common -- yet false -- myth. People with darker skin tones are less likely to experience sunburn after prolonged sun exposure, and the common signs of aging – specifically wrinkles -- take longer to appear in the darker range of skin tones. This leads many to think that darker skin is not damaged or aged by the sun. However, while darker skin is more resistant to sunburns than lighter skin, our skin still needs protection from long term sun damage that ages skin and leads to problems with hyperpigmentation.
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Ultraviolet light, which causes damage to the skin, is made up of UVA and UVB light. UVA light is lower energy, but it penetrates the deeper layers of the skin and causes long-term damage that leads to aging and skin discoloration. UVB light is higher energy and causes tanning and burning - the short-term damage from excess exposure to the sun. Both UVA and UVB light affect all skin colors. In addition, ultraviolet light is present when it’s cloudy and during the winter months, so it’s important to use sunscreen daily, no matter the weather or season.
The ABCs of SPF
Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect your skin from UVB light. It’s important to note that sunscreens will not protect your skin against UVA light unless the product specifically mentions it provides broad-spectrum protection, which protects against both types of ultraviolet light. If your goal is to prevent sunburn, which is caused by UVB light, then most sunscreens will be fine. However, if your goal is to prevent long term damage caused by UVA light, you need broad-spectrum protection.
The SPF of products can range from 15 to 100, but more is not always better. An SPF of 30 is not double the protection of SPF 15: SPF 15 blocks 93% of ultraviolet rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 98%. So for daily use, an SPF of 30 is enough.
Ingredients in Your Sunscreen
The ingredients in sunscreen work in two ways: physical and chemical.
Physical Sunscreens work by sitting on top of your skin to deflect and scatter UV light away from the skin. Their active mineral ingredients, mainly titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, provide broad-spectrum protection when used together. As mineral products, they are non-irritating and are great to use on sensitive skin. They are also non-comedogenic and have antibacterial activity, so they are great to use if you have oily or acne-prone skin. Additionally, physical sunscreens provide protection immediately upon application and have a longer shelf life. However, as physical protectants, they can sweat and rub off easily. As a result, they must be reapplied frequently. The biggest complaint about mineral sunscreens is they can be chalky and opaque and leave a white cast that is easily seen on darker skin tones. Fortunately, micronized formulations reduce the white cast on darker skin while maintaining good broad-spectrum protection that works with sensitive skin.
Chemical Sunscreens contain ingredients that are absorbed into the skin and work by changing UV light into heat through chemical reactions, which is then released from the skin. Avobenzone is one of the most widely used chemical sunscreen ingredients available in the US. It is safe and provides broad-spectrum protection as it is effective against UVA light. Oxybenzone is another commonly used chemical sunscreen. However, it has been identified as causing skin reactions, and products with this ingredient are banned in many countries because this enters the water system and stunts the growth of local corals. So, we recommend sticking with products made with avobenzone instead.
Chemical sunscreens tend to be thinner and easy to spread, making them ideal for daily use. Since the protectant isn’t physical, you need less to shield your skin and the product goes on clear (a huge plus for darker skin tones). However, it must be noted that you should apply this type of sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going out into the sun. Additionally, you need to re-apply the product frequently. Keep in mind, chemical sunscreens can clog your pores, (leading to breakouts), and can be irritating to people with sensitive skin.
Choosing a Sunscreen for Yourself
The sunscreen you choose to use on your skin depends on your skin type and need for protection. The currently available options each have pros and cons, so you will need to decide based on what is most important for you. Here are a few tips on how to choose the right sunscreen suited to your level of sun exposure and skin type.
Type of Light Exposure
Incidental vs. intense exposure: The kind of sunscreen you use will vary depending on the type of outdoor exposure you are expecting. For incidental sun exposure - when you are outside for only a few minutes at a time – experts recommend an SPF of 30. For longer, more intense sun exposure, like days on the beach or other outdoor activities, you should use water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF over 30 and re-apply it every two hours. Don’t rely solely on sunscreen; you should also wear hats, use umbrellas and cover your skin for additional protection. For both types of exposure, make sure your sunscreen provides broad-spectrum protection.
Your Skin Type
If you have oily or acne-prone skin, you will need to avoid sunscreens that clog your pores. Some acne medications increase sun sensitivity, so rigorous daily sun protection is very important when you use those products. Zinc oxide soothes and protects the skin while reducing inflammation and oil production. Thus, products with this mineral miracle are better for people with oily skin. With that said, although physical sunscreens may be better for oily skin, they are heavy and thick and may not feel better for oily skin. If you have dry skin, you can try a moisturizing sunscreen. Many oil-based sunscreens are excellent and offer broad-spectrum protection.
If you have any skin allergies or sensitive skin, you may want to limit yourself to physical sunscreens rather than the chemical ones, as the ingredients in physical sunscreens are less likely to irritate. Many people are not aware that their irritated skin and acne bumps may be due to allergies to sunscreen ingredients, with oxybenzone being a common cause of skin reactions. To avoid irritation, read the labels of your cosmetics, as many contain sunscreen and pay attention to which ingredients make your skin react. If you absolutely cannot use any sunscreen, you can apply antioxidants vitamins, like C and E, to your skin, as natural sun protectants. Regular application of vitamins C and E can help reduce UV damage.
People with darker skin might prefer using chemical sunscreens as they are clear when applied to the skin. However, people with darker skin are also more likely to have sensitive skin which is irritated by some chemical sunscreens. In that case, use physical sunscreens formulas made with micronized zinc oxide, as the particles are small enough to allow them to blend in and disappear into the skin, while providing non-irritating sun protection.
The most common skin concern voiced by people with melanin-rich skin is hyperpigmentation and every recommendation for prevention or treatment of hyperpigmentation includes daily use of sunscreen. If you want your skin even-toned and protected, the key to a beautiful and healthy glow is daily sunscreen for all skin types and tones. Your choice for which type of sunscreen will depend on your sun exposure and skin type, but you have many effective options to choose from. Caring for your skin is very much about prevention, and wearing sunscreen is one of the easiest, yet most effective, things you can do for healthier skin now and in the future.
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