A Guide to Sunscreen for the Richly Pigmented (a.k.a. People of Color)


The Sun and Richly Pigmented Skin

Melanin is the class of pigments that endows we human beings with a most wondrous range of skin, hair and eye colors and helps protect us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. People of African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Indigenous Australian, Polynesian, Alaska NativeFirst Nations, Native American and/or Latin American ancestry have skin with more melanin than their counterpart thus richly pigmented skin.

Deeper skin tones confer more protection from UV radiation than lighter skin tones due to the presence of greater amounts of melanin – the more melanin in one’s skin, the richer one’s skin color and the more protection from UV rays one’s skin confers. As such, people with richly pigmented skin are less likely to experience photodamage as a result of sun exposure than their lighter skinned counterparts.

Despite this fact, people of color DO  get sunburns (Anecdote: I’ve gotten two sunburns in my life) and people of ALL skin tones are susceptible to UV-induced DNA damage as a result of sun exposure. Skin cancer is far less prevalent in people or color BUT when it does occur it’s far more advanced and has a worse prognosis.

As a future public health professional and skincare addict, I implore people of color — and everyone else — to wear sunscreen daily and practice other sun protection behaviors.

Defense against the Dark Marks

We’ve established that everyone, regardless of skin color, should wear sunscreen daily to prevent photodamage but there’s a specific skincare benefit of sunscreen for the richly pigmented.

Folks with deeper skin tones are quite prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), a type of skin discoloration that occurs after an overproduction of melanin in response to an inflammatory event (acne, etc.).  PIH is more prevalent and difficult to to treat in those with deeper skin tones because of the abundance of melanin present in their skin. More melanin translates to a larger increase in melanin production in response to an inflammatory event. Lack of sun protection via sunscreen use worsens PIH and makes it even MORE difficult to resolve. 1 If you’re a POC who is PIH-prone, then diligent use of sunscreen is a must. Without it all of your valiant PIH fading efforts will be for naught.

Choosing a POC-Friendly Sunscreen

Choosing a sunscreen is a difficult task regardless of skin color BUT it’s especially hard to find  one that’s POC-friendly. Most sunscreens aren’t designed with the richly pigmented in mind so they can leave a ghastly white cast on one’s skin. With that said, here are some guidelines for choosing a sunscreen suitable for your richly pigmented skin:

  • If you avoid inorganic UV filters (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) in sunscreen, then you’ll avoid the dreaded white cast sunscreen can impart to skin. As such, look for sunscreens entirely comprised of organic UV filters (every other UV filter except the aforementioned).
  • If you’d like to use sunscreen with inorganic UV filters, look for micronized zinc oxide and avoid titanium dioxide. Micronized zinc oxide is very unlikely to leave a white cast, even on richly pigmented skin. Titanium dioxide will most likely leave a white cast — on any skin tone — so buyer beware. You can also opt for sunscreens that utilize inorganic/organic UV filter combinations (zinc oxide in combination with organic UV filters).

My Sunscreen Recommendations for Richly Pigmented Skin

I’ve addressed generalities of choosing a sunscreen for  deeper skin tones, so now I’ll discuss my specific recommendations. As shown above, my skin is deep brown in color. If a sunscreen doesn’t give my skin a white cast, then it’s probably a good option for people of all skin colors that are looking to avoid this phenomena.

My sunscreen recommendations for protection from photodamage and defense against the dark marks — sans white cast — are as follows:

It utilizes an inorganic UV filter (micronized zinc oxide). It was the first sunscreen I used and I wore it daily for a couple of years. It’s lightweight, non-greasy, mattifying, soothing, wears well under makeup and contains antioxidants (vitamin E and grape seed extract). The only con is that it doesn’t play well with other skincare products sometimes. It costs $25.95 for 2.5 ounces.

It utilizes organic UV filters (avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone). It’s lightweight, non-greasy and wears well under makeup. It costs $9.49 for 3 ounces.

It utilizes organic UV  filters (avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone). It’s very lightweight, non-greasy, wears well under makeup and contains antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E and green tea leaf extract) as well an anti-irritant (bisabolol). It costs $12.49 for 1.4 ounces.

Good luck in your search for a sunscreen that’s well suited for your richly pigmented skin! May you prevent photodamage and the worsening of PIH for the rest of your days!


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