The Problem Sunscreen Poses for Dark Skin

Certain ingredients are pushing people of color away from good skin care.

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Americans as a whole don’t regularly wear sunscreen, but Americans of color especially don’t. This is striking given sunscreen’s wide-ranging benefits. It fades acne scars, which can last for weeks or even months. It staves off conditions that are caused or worsened by the sun, such as lupus, which is especially common among women of color. And it protects skin that becomes more photosensitive due to certain medications, including those for high blood pressure—a condition more likely to affect African Americans.

Then there’s skin cancer. While more white people get diagnosed with skin cancer than people of color, black people are less likely to survive the diagnosis, because physicians tend to catch their cancer in later stages.

Pervasive misconceptions about people of color not needing sunscreen are one factor that keeps them from applying it and not getting diagnosed early. But there may be another catalyst: Sunscreen often looks terrible on richly pigmented skin. YouTube videos like “Scale of 1–ASHY?!” and “We Put These Sunscreens to the Ashy Test” show women of color trying on different sunscreens that make them look like they’ve put on Phantom of the Opera masks.

These white, blue, purple, and even green masks appear thanks to certain ingredients. Sunscreen companies use various formulas to block two types of sun rays: ultraviolet B rays, which can cause sunburn and skin cancer, and ultraviolet A, which can accelerate sagging skin. Chemical sunscreen, a category of sunscreen that works by absorbing or reflecting rays, tends to protect best against UVB rays—though some formulations protect against both. Physical sunscreen, meanwhile, uses white compounds that are insoluble in water, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, to sit on the skin and act as a physical barrier that deflects both UVA and UVB rays.

In order for their products to be certified as broad-spectrum in the United States, sunscreen companies have to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their sunscreen can block both UVA and UVB light. As a result, many use physical ingredients, which are less likely to cause an allergic reaction: They’re “considered relatively inert, meaning we believe that they don’t really interact with your skin that much,” says Ginette Okoye, the chair of dermatology at Howard University Hospital. The problem is, physical ingredients are the ones that leave a white cast.

Because the FDA regulates sunscreen as a drug instead of as a cosmetic, U.S. companies are especially limited in their choices of protective ingredients, whether chemical or physical. The FDA has been criticized for being slow to approve new ingredients, especially compared to Asian and European countries, which tend to have more ingredients available. Because of the long approval process, U.S. sunscreen companies can be laser focused on just getting effective treatments out. Okoye points out that these companies don’t necessarily consider the appearance angle. “The purpose of sunscreen is for skin-cancer prevention. They measure success not by how it looks, but how it prevents skin cancer or sunburn,” she says.

But companies are starting to think more about addressing how their products feel and appear on skin of color. At first, “the larger companies never thought that people of color would spend their dollar on sunscreen, because people of color have a mentality of ‘Black don’t crack,’” says Shontay Lundy, the founder of Black Girl Sunscreen, a company that designs sunscreen specifically for black women. Now both older, larger companies, such as CeraVe, Banana Boat, and Supergoop!, and new black-owned skin-care companies—such as Black Girl Sunscreen and Bolden USA, a skin-care company for women of color—have started tinkering more with traditional formulas, with different complexions in mind.

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Holly Thaggard, Supergoop!’s founder, points out that zinc oxide, one of the most popular ingredients used in physical sunscreens, for instance, comes in hundreds of different varieties. “If it’s our goal to bring something to market that is more skin compatible with regard to color, we have some options,” she says. On top of using different iterations of zinc oxide, Supergoop! has also added a tint to its physical sunscreens to make them blend in better with a wider range of skin colors.

CeraVe has reduced the physical ingredient zinc oxide to nanoparticles in some of its products, which lessens the white cast left on skin. But doing so can lessen the zinc’s effectiveness, and Reddit threads say the sunscreen can still leave a cast. (CeraVe didn’t respond to a request for comment through its owner, L’Oréal.) Banana Boat, meanwhile, simply offers a variety of physical and chemical sunscreens instead of just one particular type. “We encourage consumers to select sunscreen based on their skin type, activity level, and exposure need,” says Samuel Vona, the director of research and development at Edgewell Personal Care, the company that owns Banana Boat.

Bolden USA and Black Girl Sunscreen have taken a distinct approach by completely removing active physical ingredients like zinc oxide from their products and opting for chemical sunscreens instead. After two years of going back and forth with labs and the FDA, the sisters Chinelo Chidozie and Ndidi Obidoa, the founders of Bolden USA, launched an SPF 30 broad-spectrum sunscreen this past summer, with avobenzone as one of the active ingredients. But avobenzone, which is used in Black Girl Sunscreen as well, can trigger allergic reactions in some people. “The difficulty in formulation is being able to please everybody,” Chidozie says. “You want to be able to meet the needs of the majority of the people and then for the specific cases that are reacting, you create work-arounds.” The sisters suggest people try a patch test to see if the combination of ingredients works on their skin type first.

Cheryl Burgess, the medical director of the Center for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery in Washington, D.C., also has work-arounds she shares with patients for avoiding—or at least reducing—white casts: “Put it in your palm, rub your hands together, and then put it on.” She also suggests that people mix liquid foundation with a sunscreen to make a tinted sunscreen.

Melanin does naturally protect against the sun’s harmful rays, but skin tone and the amount of sun exposure a person has are important factors. “When it comes to skin cancer, it’s not just about your race, it’s really about the way your skin reacts to the sun,” Okoye says. Even if two people are the exact same complexion, the person who is a professional tennis player, for example, would generally be more at risk than the person who is a computer programmer. But even indoors, windows don’t always block UVA rays, and phones and computers emit blue light, which can damage skin.

The latest sunscreen innovations are allowing sunscreen to protect a wider range of people, but some of the newer alternatives can get quite pricey, with many starting at $20 for one to two ounces. They also typically aren’t sold in drugstores. The Bolden USA founders think the accessibility, and perhaps the prices, too, will change with time. “Once they have a good following, mass retail usually follows,” Chidozie says.