Everyone needs protection from the sun. You can benefit from sunscreen regardless of your skin tone.
But it can be hard to find a sunscreen without a white cast. There are certain factors people of color in particular need to consider to find their perfect sunscreen.
Sunscreen for Different Skin Tones
Sunscreen is a cosmetic compound that protects you from the sun’s rays and lowers your risk of skin cancer. Aside from staying inside or wearing clothing head-to-toe, sunscreen is your next best option to protect your skin.
People around the world still refuse to wear sunscreen despite the necessity. People of color are among that population, but not necessarily by choice.
The typical off-the-shelf sunscreen isn’t made for all skin tones. Sunscreen that’s considered safe has a strange effect on people of color: It temporarily changes their skin color, a change called a white cast.
A Little About Sunscreen
Sunscreens come in many forms, including oils, sprays, and gels. The most common types of sunscreen are lotions and creams.
The typical lotion sunscreen has two varieties that have massive differences.
Chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens are formulated so that your skin absorbs them. The sunscreen chemicals cause a reaction in your skin when the sun hits it that protects you from harmful rays.
Physical, natural, or mineral sunscreens. Physical sunscreen has many names to differentiate it from chemical sunscreen. It uses the mineral ingredients titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO) instead of chemicals absorbed into the skin.
The minerals in the sunscreen chemicals sit on your skin and refract the sun’s rays. They form a protective layer on top of your skin rather than in your skin.
Sunscreen White Cast
Most sunscreens are intended to be transparent or faintly white. When applied on lighter skin, sunscreen is invisible to the naked eye.
The white tint in the sunscreen doesn’t blend with darker skin and can make their skin appear slightly white, purple, or blue. This tinting is called a white cast or bluing.
Why Does Sunscreen Leave a White Cast?
Not all sunscreen leaves a white cast. The culprit is physical sunscreen.
Physical sunscreen is made of tiny TiO2 and ZnO particles that sit on your skin. When sunlight hits them, they reflect the light.
For people with lighter skin, this isn’t a problem — the lightness of the physical sunscreen blends in easily.
The illuminated mineral particles in the sunscreen stand out for people with darker skin. This causes their skin to appear lighter or discolored.
Worries about the health impact of chemical sunscreens have grown over the last several years, and there’s been a shift toward physical sunscreens. But since physical sunscreens cause white casts, the problem has become apparent: There aren’t enough sunscreens for people of color.
How to Choose a Sunscreen
Sunscreen selection is more complicated than choosing a spray or lotion. If you're a person of color, you have to get down to the microscopic level.
Choosing a chemical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens don’t typically leave a white cast since they’re absorbed into your skin. The downside of chemical sunscreens is that they can harm people with skin sensitivities.
Unless you know precisely which sunscreen chemicals irritate your skin and are willing to scour the ingredients, you might be better off searching for an effective physical sunscreen.
Choosing a physical sunscreen. The two mineral ingredients in physical sunscreens are microscopic particles as small as 10 nanometers. But TiO2 and ZnO aren’t the same when it comes to darker skin.
Titanium dioxide refracts more light than zinc oxide and causes more of a white cast. Choose physical sunscreens that only have zinc oxide to avoid a white cast.
Luckily, zinc oxide has no known side effects besides the occasional allergic reaction. So, choosing zinc-heavy sunscreens shouldn’t cause problems.
The zinc oxide in your zinc needs to meet a few requirements. Since it refracts less light, the sunscreen needs more zinc oxide to have the same SPF as a combination sunscreen.
When choosing a sunscreen with only ZnO, it should be 15% to 20% zinc oxide with particles that are 20 to 30 nanometers.
Choosing a Sunscreen for Different Skin Tones
Everyone’s skin tone is different, and ZnO sunscreens may still leave a minor white cast for some people. Another option is getting a tinted sunscreen.
You can buy tinted physical sunscreens or homebrew them yourselves. The best pigments for tinted sunscreens are:
- Red iron oxide
- Transparent iron oxide
- Earth tones
- Dark pearl
These pigments should add enough color to the sunscreen to prevent a white cast.
Using Your Sunscreen Without a White Cast
If you’ve found the perfect sunscreen that doesn't leave a white cast, you want to make sure it lasts.
Applying sunscreen. Apply your sunscreen 15 minutes before going out. You should cover your entire face and any visible skin on your body.
You need to reapply sunscreen after you dry off from swimming or if you’re sweating a lot. If you’re not swimming or sweating, you should reapply after 2 hours.
Keep it cool. To make sure your perfect sunscreen lasts, keep it out of direct sunlight and in a cool area. When you head to the beach, wrap it in a towel in your bag or store it in the cooler so it doesn’t get hot.
Toss it. Your skin health is vital, and expired sunscreen won’t do you any favors. Replace your sunscreen when it expires or after three years.
Want to Skip the Sunscreen?
If finding the perfect sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white cast is too much of a hassle, there are some alternatives:
- Stay in the shade whenever you’re outside.
- Wear long shirts and pants to cover your skin.
- Wear wide-brimmed hats to protect your face.
- Wear sunglasses to shield the skin around your eyes.
Screen Your Sunscreen
Sunscreen is meant to keep your skin healthy and beautiful. Many people with light skin can grab a bottle of sunscreen off the shelf and be fine, but people of color should thoroughly vet their sunscreen before committing.