wellness·4 min read

Should Black People Use Sunscreen? If You Said 'No,' We Need to Talk

Woman Putting On Sunscreen
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
Apr 25, 2022

Here’s something you might’ve heard before: Black people or people with darker skin tones don’t need to use sunscreen. Because the melanin in your skin — which creates the pigmentation — will protect you from the sun.  

The truth: Everyone needs sunscreen, no matter how dark your skin is. Or else you could be risking more than a sunburn. See: skin cancer. There are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to sunscreen. So we looked into why people with melanated skin still need to protect themselves from the sun, why sunscreen should be your go-to, and how to find some that are melanin-friendly.  

So do Black people actually need sunscreen?

The short answer: Yes. 

Melanin might provide a little protection from the sun. But it’s not nearly as effective as sunscreen. And believing that it is could come at a cost beyond sunburns and aging skin. Because while skin cancer tends to be diagnosed more often in white people (see: melanoma occurs 20 times more often), one study found that Black people were four times more likely to be diagnosed with advanced-stage melanoma. And 1.5 times more likely to die from it.  

Where did the idea that Black people don’t need sunscreen come from? 

The misconception has been around for years. But it might have begun with the medical community. Where there’s been a history of exclusion and poor treatment toward people of color. 

A 2011 survey found that 47% of dermatology residents and dermatologists said they hadn’t been adequately trained on skin conditions in Black people. While other research found some white medical students held false beliefs about Black people’s skin (read: believing it was thicker and that nerve endings were less sensitive). And one study found physicians recommended sunscreen to white people nine times more often than Black people. No, that’s not a typo. It’s why there’s so much confusion around the topic. But time to set things straight so you can enjoy the sun, safely. 

How much sunscreen should I apply? 

Sunscreen helps to protect your skin from ultraviolet rays (UV), which mainly come from the sun. But can also come from other sources (see: tanning beds, blacklights). When it comes to the types of sunscreen, there are two: 

  • Physical sunscreen: More commonly known as mineral sunscreen, it creates a barrier on the skin that reflects UV rays.  But it’s the type of sunscreen that can sometimes leave white streaks on the body. 

  • Chemical sunscreen: Instead of reflecting the sun’s rays, these sunscreens have chemical ingredients that absorb the UV rays. They’re also absorbed into the skin (where they can reach the bloodstream). And there is some evidence that certain ingredients might affect hormonal function. But it’s still inconclusive.  

Whichever you choose, make sure it’s labeled “broad spectrum” or that the label says it protects against UVA and UVB rays (the kind that damage the skin). The time of day, the season, and how often you go outside are a few of the things that’ll influence how much sunscreen you’ll need. And probably which sun protection factor (aka SPF) you’ll use. The higher the number, the more protection from the sun you’ll have. Experts recommend going with something between SPF 30 and 50. No need to go above 50. Because anything higher might provide more of a sense of security than any additional protection. Apply sunscreen every day (if you’re going out) and reapply every two hours, or right after sweating or swimming. Use it allll over the parts of your body that’ll be exposed to the sun. Including in places you might not think of, like your ears, feet, and legs. 

Which sunscreen should I use?

There are pros and cons to mineral and chemical sunscreens. But both are considered safe by the FDA. And it’s your call. The good news: Some brands are making it a point to protect you from the sun while also avoiding those white streaks that make you look like you skipped the moisturizer. (Like Winnie Harlow’s new sunscreen line) Here are some products to get you started. And make sure to check out tinted sunscreens as well — made to more closely match your skin tone. 

theSkimm 

The medical community still has some catching up to do when it comes to taking care of melanated skin. But don't let that stop you from getting the protection you need to live a long, healthy, sun-kissed life.

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