Melanin—the pigment that gives skin its color—works in fascinating ways. Dark skin tones are rich in melanin, which can help protect against UV rays.¹ But that doesn’t mean that people with dark skin should skip out on sunscreen. Melanin’s natural sun protection isn’t enough to completely protect against UVA rays, which are mainly attributed to signs of aging, and UVB rays, which are mainly attributed to skin burns.² In fact, people of all different skin tones should practice good sun protection every single day. And that means wearing sunscreen.
How exactly does melanin work? Basically, it’s the pigment in your skin, formed within tiny cells called melanocytes that produce melanosomes, which are tiny packages of pigment. Melanin doesn’t just give your skin its hue—it can also absorb UV light to help protect the skin cell from UV damage.³ So the more melanated your skin, the greater its potential to absorb energy from the sun. While people with more melanated skin might have better natural protection against sun damage, they do still need to take additional precautions, like wearing SPF.
Even if your skin’s natural melanin content helps delay skin concerns like signs of aging, UV damage can still cause problems like hyperpigmentation, sunburn, or even skin cancer. You should definitely practice sun safety to protect your skin, no matter what!
Skin tones with less melanin are more prone to certain signs of sun damage, like wrinkles, fine lines, and sunburns.⁴ But all skin is still susceptible to damage from the sun’s UV rays. Hyperpigmentation, in particular, is common in dark skin. It happens when an area of skin becomes darker than the surrounding skin, usually in a patch or spot. Dermatologists can agree that the most effective treatment for dark spots begins with sunscreen. Whether you’re treating the dark spots on your own or seeing a dermatologist, protecting your skin with sunscreen is essential.
Sun damage from harmful UVA and UVB rays can also include skin cancer, which often isn’t diagnosed in people of color until its later stages.⁵ Just because sun damage might be less visible on people with darker skin tones doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Depending on your age and medical history, it’s important to get your skin checked regularly by an in-person dermatologist or dermatology medical provider.
Melanin can help protect you from sun damage, but it’s crucial to help those little melanosomes out by practicing sun safety. This includes using sunscreen, wearing sun-blocking clothing, seeking shade, and basically doing what you can to avoid overexposure to the sun.
For many people, the hardest part of practicing daily sun protection is finding a good sunscreen that doesn’t feel greasy or leave a white cast. Finding a no-white cast sunscreen can be especially challenging for people with dark skin tones; basically, a white cast is the appearance of awkward white streaks that appear when your sunscreen doesn’t fully blend into your skin—especially when you’re using the right amount of sunscreen.
The good news is that sheer, lightweight sunscreens for melanin-rich skin exist—the ones below are some of our favorites that aren’t known to clog pores or cause irritation. With a sunscreen that melts into your skin, leaving a matte or satin finish without any annoying white cast, you can protect your skin every single day.
Designed by dermatologists for acne-prone skin (but great for all skin types), Curology’s broad spectrum sunscreen provides SPF 30 UV defense. It’s a mineral sunscreen with 9.4% zinc oxide, and it has a silky texture that dries without any dreaded white cast. Because it’s non-comedogenic, you also don’t have to worry about it making your breakouts even worse.
Popular among skincare enthusiasts, this fragrance-free sunscreen utilizes physical blockers (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) to protect skin from harmful UV rays.
A translucent, gel sunscreen with a rich base that’s perfect for dry, thirsty skin. Made for all skin types and pigments, this clear-drying sunscreen includes vitamin E, vitamin C, and ferulic acid for antioxidant benefits.
Urban Skin Rx has been designing skincare products for melanin-rich skin since 2010, so it’s no surprise that they have one of the best sunscreens for dark skin tones. This moisturizer with SPF ticks all the boxes, including a non-greasy finish that won’t leave a white cast.
This nourishing SPF moisturizer is a good option for a lightweight facial sunscreen with no white cast. Aloe is a key ingredient that helps soothe skin inflammation..
This sheer sunscreen with a dewy finish layers well with makeup. Its lightly moisturizing base works well for dry or combination skin types. (Tip: After applying, let it absorb for 5-10 minutes before applying makeup to help prevent pilling.)
Neutrogena’s sheer face mist is a drugstore staple. Head’s up: the term “face mist” is a bit deceiving—to apply, you spritz your fingers then rub the product into your skin.
Designed for sensitive skin, this non-greasy sunscreen suits most skin types. However, it has a thick consistency that may leave a white cast. We don’t think this is a great sunscreen to layer with makeup, but this is still a great option if you’re looking for a high-SPF body sunscreen.
Everyone, regardless of skin tone, should wear sunscreen every single day—yes, even on days when you’re stuck inside and the sun is barely shining. If you’re out in the sun all day, you’ll want to reapply every two hours to ensure you’re keeping up with your sun protection. Use up to a half teaspoon of sunscreen for the face and neck (or use the two-finger rule to ensure you’re applying enough). If you’re swimming or sweating, use a water-resistant sunscreen and apply according to the directions on the label.
SPF (sun protection factor) is a number that measures a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB rays from damaging the skin. The number is based on how quickly redness forms on sunscreen-protected skin compared to unprotected skin.⁶ Curology’s licensed dermatology providers recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Even if your skin is more melanated, using a sunscreen with this level of protection can help to keep you safe from harmful UV rays.
Besides sunscreen, here are a few other ways you can help protect your skin from harmful UV rays from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).⁷
Cover up with clothing. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants and skirts can provide protection from UV rays. If you can’t wear clothing with full coverage, a beach coverup or t-shirt can also offer some protection. Items made from tightly woven fabric (like canvas, denim, or twill) offer more protection than loosely woven fabrics.
Wear a hat. Wide-brimmed hats can protect your face, ears, and the back of your neck. If possible, try to avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through and opt for tightly woven fabrics that offer more protection from UV rays.
Don’t forget your shades. Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure. Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection.
Stay in the shade. You can reduce your risk of sun damage and skin cancer by staying in the shade under an umbrella, tree, or other shelter.
If you’ve read this far, then kudos to you for doing your sun protection homework. You know that everyone’s skin is different, so it can take some educated guessing to figure out what works for you. If you’d like to take the guesswork out of skincare, then Curology’s got your back.
At Curology, we believe that everyone’s skin is unique and that skincare should be accessible for all. That’s why all of our prescription treatments are customized to meet your skin’s needs and sent straight to your door. After taking a consultation, if Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a 30-day supply of our recommended products (like our brand-new sunscreen) for just $4.95 to cover the cost of shipping and handling. Sign up for your free* trial today!
Brenner, M., & Hearing, V. J. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochemistry and photobiology. (2008).
Skin Cancer Foundation. UV Radiation & Your Skin. (2021).
Schlessinger, D. I., et al. Biochemistry, Melanin. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. (2022).
Vashi, N. A., et al. Aging Differences in Ethnic Skin. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (2016).
Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Cancer & Skin of Color. (2022).
Dale Wilson, B., et al. Comprehensive review of ultraviolet radiation and the current status on sunscreens. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (2012).
Center for disease control and prevention. Sun safety. (2022).
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C