Sunscreens for dark skin tones: what you need to know

Despite the long-held belief that dark skin doesn’t require much sun protection, in recent years, more women of color have come to recognize the importance of using an SPF. Here, FEDORA ABU discovers the truth behind the myths and shares the personally approved products you need in your arsenal


Like many dark-skinned women, I’m fairly new to SPF. While growing up, my pale-skinned friends often slathered themselves with sunscreen in the summer months. I’d been led to believe that my skin had in-built protection – and so I often went without. It wasn’t until, while on vacation and I burned to the point of peeling, that I realized that even dark skin isn’t immune to the sun’s rays.

However, even with my newfound awareness of the value of SPF, I was still left with questions. For example, do people with dark skin need to wear SPF50? And is sunscreen necessary for every day? I’d also discovered that most sunscreens left dark skin with a noticeable blue tinge that could only be covered up with layers of foundation. Here’s the comprehensive PORTER guide to SPF for dark skin.

How does the sun affect dark skin in particular?

“The sun doesn’t discriminate [between dark skin and light skin],” says Dr Rachael Eckel, a cosmetic dermatologist based in Trinidad. “The sun damages all skin types, but the way that it does can vary for different ethnicities. Lighter skin tones, when exposed to the sun, will freckle and burn, for example. However, with darker ethnicities, you tend to get oilier skin and more breakouts, as well as conditions like melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.”

Dr Eckel explains that this is down to the melanocyte cells, which produce pheomelanin in lighter skin and eumelanin in darker skin. “With lighter skin, when the melanocyte cell is stimulated by the sun, it makes pheomelanin, which oxidizes, explodes and mutates DNA – their melanin is not photoprotective,” she explains. “On the other hand, when the sun hits darker skin, the melanocyte cell produces eumelanin, which is photoprotective. When eumelanin is oxidized, it basically changes color – as it’s supposed to – and that brings photoprotection from the sun.”

What’s more, a true broad-spectrum SPF product protects against both UVA and UVB. While the latter is responsible for burning on the surface of the skin (and darker skin does provide a degree of protection against this), UVA penetrates deeper and generates free radicals – causing oxidation and damaging collagen, elastin and pigmentation, regardless of skin tone.

Is a moisturizer with SPF enough?

“I think that if you buy a moisturizer with SPF, there’s a bit of a trade-off,” says French dermo-pharmacist Dr Colette Haydon, who spent years formulating products for premium skincare brands before launching her brand, Lixirskin. “It’s better to buy a good moisturizer for its qualities as a moisturizer, and when it comes to SPF, buy an SPF product from a formulator that specializes in sun care.”

SPF within makeup, however, is slightly different, as most foundations already contain titanium dioxide for coverage, plus added pigment, which inherently provide a degree of sun protection. “I prefer to recommend a good moisturizer and sun care, or a good moisturizer and a makeup product… that might include SPF,” says Dr Haydon.

Which sunscreens are most suitable for dark skin?

Traditionally, most sunscreens have been unsuitable for women with dark skin, due to the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which act as physical barriers to UVA and UVB, but leave a pale-blue tinge on the skin. As technology has improved, these particles have become more ‘nano’, improving their transparency, but for truly invisible coverage, there are now ‘chemical’ sunscreens, which instead filter the sun’s rays – and are often the best bet for women with darker skin tones.

However, many dermatologists, like Dr Eckel, prefer physical sunscreens as they are “chemically inert, meaning that they have no interaction with the skin” – whereas those with sensitive skin might react to chemical sunscreens. However, she admits, “sunscreen is a really personal choice. People often don’t like it to look white, and chemical sunscreens look great – they rub in invisible and they do give you good protection.” Sensitive skin types should always test on an inconspicuous patch of skin first, or consult their dermatologist.

What level of SPF does dark skin need?

“You have to match your SPF level to the need that day,” says Dr Haydon. For Lixirskin, she’s formulated Universal Emulsion, which, unlike typical moisturizers, has an in-built SPF of 10 without added sunscreens – so no trade-off – and is sufficient for daily use in urban, overcast environments, especially for women with darker skin tones. However, in the summer months, and for days when you’re more exposed to the sun, she recommends opting for sunscreen product with a higher SPF.

Still, while it’s tempting to go for maximum protection during periods of high-intensity sunlight, Dr Haydon believes there really is no need. “SPF50 is really for very pale sensitive skin,” she says. “[For dark skin], it would be excessive.” Most important, rather, is regular reapplication.



The model featured in this story is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown