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.