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Person with dark skin applying sunscreen

Dark Skin Needs Sunscreen Too!

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This is why SPF is so important for skin of color.

Applying sunscreen is a critical skincare step that’s all too often saved only for summertime fun in the sun. Some even skip it altogether—many of them, people of color. For those patients, sunscreen can have a bad rep. Some say it’s chalky and leaves a whitish case on skin; others find it causes breakouts and think it’s unnecessary. “People think the only reason to use protection is to prevent skin cancer or sunburn and that you only need to put it on at the beach or on vacation,” says Valerie Callender, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Glenn Dale, MD and an Acne Store advisory board member. “I have to educate my patients that it’s important to protect your skin every day no matter what the season or circumstance—even if you have dark skin.” Here Callender explores why SPF should be the MVP of everyone’s skincare lineup, and what kinds of products dark skin tones should look for.

Does dark skin need sunscreen?

Those with dark skin have a natural SPF of 13.4 (for reference, fair skin has about a 3.4). Sure, that’s a good start, but it’s not nearly sufficient for adequate protection. “Patients will always ask what the appropriate SPF is and as dermatologists we usually say 30 or higher.” Do the math: An SPF of 15 just won’t cut it. 

Wearing sunscreen and fighting acne go hand in hand

“Ultraviolet light from the sun has a direct effect on skin’s melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin, stimulating the production of pigment,” says Callender. This is what causes hyperpigmentation, which is one of the most commonly cited skin concerns for those with skin of color. If acne is an issue as well, the concern is even greater since breakouts can leave behind bothersome dark spots on the skin. “Patients are sometimes more concerned about the hyperpigmentation than the acne itself so treating dark spots and skin discoloration have to be a part of the treatment plan.” Sunscreen is a critical component of that plan. 

I have to educate my patients that it’s important to protect your skin every day no matter what the season or circumstance—even if you have dark skin.

Can sunscreen help remove hyperpigmentation?

It should come as no surprise that sunscreen can help prevent dark spots due to sun exposure. Here’s some even better news: When sunscreen is used on a daily basis, it can also lighten those spots. One Howard University Department of Dermatology study tracked Hispanic and African American patients using sunscreen daily for a couple of months and concluded that “subjects experienced a lightening of their overall complexion and dark spots just by using sunscreen without any other lightening agents like hydroquinone,” says Callender. [1] Bottom line: you can affect pigmentation just by protecting against ultraviolet light.

Find the right sunscreen formula for your skin type

Mineral sunscreens with active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the best choice for skin of color and those with acne, says Callender. Why? As far as acne goes, mineral-based formulas typically won’t clog pores and are less irritating than chemical sunscreens, she says. And newer micronized technology means tinier particles of zinc and titanium dioxide won’t produce a white cast on skin—a common complaint of those with darker complexions. “Mineral-based formulas are really elegant these days and the tinted type can almost act like a concealer,” says Callender. For the best results, use her application technique for the face: First, cleanse skin and apply any topical acne treatment. Then comes moisturizer, sun protection (SPF of 30 or higher), and finally makeup. 

And you need SPF even when you’re indoors 

“I want everyone to use sunscreens year-round, whether you’re inside or out,” says Callender. Just because you’re hanging in the house all day doesn’t mean you can forgo sunscreen: UVA rays (the most damaging to skin) can pass through the windows and have the same damaging effects as direct sun exposure, no matter your skin tone. Another benefit of mineral sunscreens is that the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide found in these formulas can offer added protection from the blue light emitted from TVs, phones, and laptop screens, which can also contribute to hyperpigmentation. 

References:

[1]: https://www.jidsponline.org/article/S1087-0024(16)30057-0/fulltext

Valerie D. Callender, M.D., F.A.A.D.

Dr. Valerie Callender is a member of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists and an internationally recognized Board-Certified Dermatologist known for her sensitive and innovative approach to the treatment of pigmentation disorders. Dr. Callender is a prolific contributor to the dermatology literature and has co-edited a textbook on Treatment for Skin of Color. Dr. Callender has conducted and participated in over 60 research studies and clinical trials for both therapeutic and cosmetic products and is a consultant for some of the world’s leading cosmetic and consumer brands. She is a Past President of the Women’s Dermatologic Society and Skin of Color Society and has served on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Dermatology. She is the Founder of the Callender Dermatology & Cosmetic Center and Callender Center for Clinical Research, which are located in the Washington, DC metropolitan region. Dr. Callender received her medical degree from Howard University, where she also did her residency and currently serves as a Professor of Dermatology at the College of Medicine.


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