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Find a sunscreen suitable for dark skin

Your guide to choosing the right sunscreen and factor, for darker skin, and skin type!

Pippa HarmanCo-Founder Renude
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Pippa Harman
Written byPippa HarmanCo-Founder Renude
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As a cosmetic formulation chemist, I am thrilled to share valuable insights into choosing the right sunscreen for your skin tone, with a specific focus on darker skin. Sunscreen is a vital component of any skincare routine, and understanding its nuances based on different skin tones is essential for optimal protection. 

The Importance of Sunscreen for Darker Skin Tones

Darker skin is not invincible to sun damage. While more melanin in the skin does offer more inherent protection, as with all skin harmful UV rays can still penetrate the skin, leading to issues like hyperpigmentation, premature ageing, and even skin cancer. Applying an appropriate sunscreen daily is crucial for maintaining healthy skin.

Understanding Skin Phototypes

To understand the relationship between SPF and different skin tones, it’s worth exploring skin phototypes. The Fitzpatrick Scale is a historical grading system used in Dermatology to classify skin into six types based on its response to UV exposure. The initial purpose of this system was to assess the risk level associated with developing sun-induced damage, in particular skin cancer. Darker skin tones (Types 4 to 6) possess higher melanin content, providing natural sun protection equivalent to approximately SPF 13.4 (Type 5) to SPF 17.5 (Type 6). This scale is somewhat subjective and considered outdated by some, but it is still used across Dermatology and Aesthetics as a reference for assessing the skin. 

How to Select SPF for Darker Skin Tones

Choose a Sunscreen that will avoid a White Cast

Synthetic (aka chemical) sunscreens contain organic compounds that absorb UV rays and convert them into heat. They are generally more transparent on the skin and can blend more easily, so can be a great option for darker skin. There are some exceptions, however, as there are some chemical sunscreens that are powder form and can still create a white cast. One of the most common ones to look out for is Methylene Bis-Benzotriazolyl Tetramethylbutylphenol. This ingredient unfortunately can create a white cast even in a mineral-free formulation, so if you’re unsure, it’s best to double-check with the brand if it’s suitable (or with your Renude aesthetician if you’re a member.)

Mineral (aka physical) sunscreens usually include active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which are white powders and therefore result in sunscreen looking chalky on darker skin. Certain mineral sunscreens are available in tinted versions, which can better match a range of skin tones and minimise the appearance of white cast. The downside is they tend to have very limited shade ranges, and don’t always cater to dark brown skin, so it’s always best to try the product on your skin first to check it’s a good match. 

Opt for a High SPF 

While natural melanin provides some sun protection, dermatologists still recommend always using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for optimal protection. It is a common misconception that darker skin tones are naturally protected from the harmful effects of the sun. It is crucial to understand that everyone, regardless of skin tone, can be affected by sun damage. No matter the pigment in your skin, a high SPF helps compensate for any inconsistencies in application, ensuring a more reliable shield against UV damage.

What does SPF mean and is it the full picture?

SPF isn’t just another word for sunscreen - SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is essentially the measure of how many times longer the skin can tolerate UVB exposure before burning. For example, for fair skin that might burn after 5 minutes in the sun, an SPF 30 would mean you could be exposed to the same amount of UVB and it would take 150 minutes (2.5 hours) before burning. For darker skin, the ratio remains but the time but the times would generally be much longer. But UVB and burning are not the full story. 

UVA rays are a separate part of the UV spectrum. There is roughly 500 times more UVA radiation reaching Earth than UVB, so it makes up far more of the UV we are exposed to daily. UVA wavelengths are longer, meaning they can penetrate the skin further, causing damage below the surface. They don’t burn the skin, so there is no instant visible effect, but over time they can still cause cellular damage, leading to accelerated ageing, hyperpigmentation and skin cancer. It is important for all skin tones that daily UVA protection is used to protect against skin damage from UVA rays. 

Look for Broad-Spectrum UVB and UVA Protection

Darker skin is more susceptible to UVA-induced hyperpigmentation, making broad-spectrum protection vital. In Europe, the minimum UVA protection a sunscreen offers should be 33% of the UVB protection (SPF rating) in order to pass compliance for launching as a broad-spectrum sunscreen. You might see this represented on the label as a UVA in a circle. 

The Boots' five-star rating goes one step further, setting a higher bar for protection. Their star rating system offers a grading on the level of UVA protection a product offers. A 5-star rating means that there is 90% of UVA protection in relation to the SPF. 4 stars mean 80-90% and 3 stars 60-80%. This is significantly higher than the standard minimum, but as this isn’t a legal requirement, you won’t find this available for all products, it is generally the larger companies that share this.   

Additional Considerations for Darker Skin

  • Visible light protection: High Energy Visible light (aka ‘blue light’) is another wavelength of the sun’s rays, which are much less damaging, but can still contribute to hyperpigmentation. Look for sunscreens that include HEVIS protection to ensure you are protected against this too.  
  • Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin: If you have sensitive skin, the simplest advice would be to look for a chemical sunscreen which has been tested as hypoallergenic (and doesn’t contain Methylene Bis-Benzotriazolyl Tetramethylbutylphenol.) This means that it has undergone additional testing and is less likely to cause irritation to the skin (although this isn’t a guarantee). The alternative is to find a tinted mineral formula, but this can be more challenging to find a formula which is a shade that matches your skin perfectly. 
  • Reapplication is Key: Regardless of your skin tone, regular sunscreen reapplication is vital, especially after swimming, sweating, or prolonged sun exposure. Sun filters in sunscreens are used up as they work to protect the skin, so need to be reapplied regularly to ensure consistent protection. Follow the guidelines provided by the manufacturer or the British Association of Dermatologists, to reapply every 2 hours.

Remember, the benefits of using sun protection are lifelong, and it's never too late to start. If you would like further help and information finding the perfect sunscreen for your skin type, or a personalised skincare routine then speak to one of our aestheticians today. Start the quiz now. 

Pippa HarmanCo-Founder Renude
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