Anyone living in the United States for any length of time has heard the alarm bells of wearing sunscreen when outdoors. But so many of these memos and alarms were meant for our fair skinned brethren. So, many of us with dark skin weren’t taught the rules that also apply to us. If you were like me growing up in the 90s and 2000s, you didn’t really see people of color applying sunscreen at the beach or at the pool. You adhered to the idea that “Black don’t crack,” even though it leaves people of color open to practices that lead to skin damage and skin cancer. But the truth is, if you have skin, you need to protect it from the sun. The color of your skin doesn’t matter. Here are the 6 steps you should when it comes to sunscreen for dark skin.
What is sunscreen?
Let’s start with the basics of what sunscreen is, especially sunscreen for dark skin. This is important because too many POC are using natural butters and oils to protect their skin from the sun. Well, that just doesn’t work. So, I’m going to describe the nature of sunscreen so that you can make an informed choice about protection.
Sunscreen comes in a variety of forms, like gels, sprays, lotions, foams, and sticks. But what all of these forms have in common is that they either absorb or reflect the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays to protect your skin from sunburn and sun damage.
Using sunscreen regularly can help prevent the appearance of aging, like wrinkles and dark spots. It can also limit and prevent sun tans, because contrary to the popular culture that has been taught to POC, we tan. We burn. And a sun tan is the same thing as a mild sunburn. It doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is. You can still get sunburns and develop cancers. So, if you haven’t done it so far, add sunscreen to your skin care routine.
Why you can’t use natural oils and butter as sunscreen for dark skin
I know that many Black folks and folks with dark skin are looking for natural alternatives to the products laden with synthetic ingredients available on store shelves. But understand that natural butters and oils are not sufficient sunscreen for dark skin. While certain butters and oils provide a tiny amount of UV protection from the sun, they are not enough to protect you if you’re spending more than a minute or two outside in the sun. So use a tested product to make sure you’re getting the skin protection you need.
Types of sunscreen
There are two types of sunscreen you should consider: mineral (aka physical) sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens commonly use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect UV rays away from the skin. Mineral sunscreens protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays and start working as soon as they are applied. They also tend to be more environmentally friendly because they generally don’t contain the ingredients that harm coral reefs. For more information about what to look for in sunscreen to protect the environment, check out the National Ocean Service’s website.
In contrast, when using chemical sunscreen, you’ll need to wait about 30 minutes before going outside, because it takes that long before the sunscreen starts to work. Chemical sunscreens work through a chemical reaction that turns the UV rays into heat, and then the heat gets released from your skin into the atmosphere.
Let’s jump into the 6 main tips you need to follow to use sunscreen.
Tip 1: How much SPF should you use
Some people think that the higher the SPF, the more protection you get. The truth is that anything higher than SPF 30 is going to offer you only a tiny bit more protection. If you want the higher SPF for peace of mind, go for it. Luckily, there isn’t a huge price difference across SPFs. But SPF 30 is going to be the sweet spot and a number you probably don’t want to go below.
Tip 2: How much sunscreen to use
The rule of thumb is that 1 ounce is enough to cover your body. A lot of resources I looked at describe an ounce in terms of a shot glass, but keep in mind that there aren’t any standard shot glass sizes in the United States and everyone’s body is different. Shot glasses can range from as small as an ounce to as large as 2 ounces.
But not all bodies are equal size-wise. And who is actually measuring out sunscreen before putting it on their body? Nobody. Your sunscreen needs to be applied to ALL of your exposed skin (that is, any part of you that’s not covered by clothing, sunglasses, and a hat), and it needs to be applied liberally.
For real, more is actually better. This goes for both white skin and for dark skin. So if there’s more of you that needs to be covered, you might need more than an ounce. Use your judgement and better be safe than sorry.
Tip3: When to apply sunscreen
When it comes to using sunscreen for dark skin, something to remember is that clear glass (e.g. the windows in your house, in your car, and on a plane or train) can let UV rays in that harm your skin. So, even if you’re indoors, it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen if you spend a lot of time near windows or if you’re traveling. Always apply your sunscreen before you go outside.
One thing to note is that mineral sunscreens are generally harder to rub into the skin because they are meant to sit on top of your skin and reflect the sun’s rays. That means chalkiness and a layer of white that will sit on top of your skin is common. If you have dark skin, it’s not a good look. On a brighter note, mineral sunscreen has been improving, especially for those of us with dark skin.
So, there’s going to be some trial and error in finding the perfect sunscreen to fit your needs. Chemical sunscreen, on the other hand, needs 20 to 30 minutes before it will actively start protecting your skin from the sun’s rays. When using chemical sunscreen, make sure to give yourself enough indoor or shade time before stepping into the sun to ensure you’re properly protected.
Tip 4: The important spots people miss
Your back, your ears (and behind them), behind your knees, your lips (don’t forget that lip balm with SPF), and beneath your eyes, especially if you aren’t wearing sunglasses or a hat. Around the eyes is probably the most common place people forget to apply sunscreen, and it’s easy to understand why. Have you ever sweated sunscreen into your eyes or accidentally touched your sunscreen-covered face and then rubbed your eyes? If you have, then you’re familiar with the stinging, burning sensation that comes with getting sunscreen in your eyes. The irritation is more common with chemical sunscreens than with mineral sunscreen.
All the same, whichever sunscreen you choose to use, tab a bit underneath your eyes and on your eyelids if you can to protect that sensitive skin. Or better yet, rock those sunglasses as much as possible when outdoors to protect the skin around your eyes, and wear a hat or visor if you can. This may be a problem for team “big hair don’t care”, but there are hats and visors available that accommodate our big curls, like these Culture Caps from Beautifully Warm.
Tip 5: How often to apply sunscreen
As a general rule of thumb, you should reapply sunscreen every 90 minutes to every 2 hours. Unfortunately, sunscreen loses its effectiveness over time, so reapplication is key to avoiding sunburn. If you’ve been sweating or swimming or spending any time near water, reapply your sunscreen immediately after wiping sweat away and after getting out of the water.
Tip 6: How to reapply sunscreen over makeup
Start by applying sunscreen underneath your makeup. Wait a few minutes, then apply your foundation, tinted moisturizers, BB creams and other forms of makeup with an SPF. As stated earlier, SPF 30 is your safe bet, but SPF 15 in makeup will keep you safe.
In real life, most people are applying their makeup in the early morning hours (sometimes before the sun is up), so by the time the afternoon comes around when you might be enjoying the sunshine and outdoors, your SPF has long worn off. But washing your face and reapplying makeup for UV protection is such a hassle. So what’s the alternative?
Touch up your SPF with a loose powder or a compact that contains SPF right before you go outdoors. A lot of these powder foundations are made with SPF 15 and 30, so you’re safe for a brief excursion outside.
In the end, the rules that apply to white skin apply to dark skin when it comes to protecting your skin from damage. You need to be using sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher to ensure protection. Cover all of your exposed body in sunscreen, and don’t bother so much with the “1 ounce” measurement that’s recommended. Apply sunscreen frequently and keep reapplying. As we all (white and dark) spend more time outdoors, we need to take precautions to protect ourselves. Because in the end, skin is skin.
Final note: Sunscreens expire, which means they become less effective over time. Be aware of the expiration dates on your sunscreen and replace them when necessary to ensure your skin is always protected.