The Ultimate SPF Guide

We all know sunscreen is something we should be using no matter what—yes, even if the only sun exposure we get is from sitting next to a window.

Sunscreen is important even if you have melanated skin that is naturally more protected from the sun than lighter skin. After all, darker-skinned beauties are at higher risk for hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, than people with fair skin. [1]

But what SPF should you be using, especially if you are melanated at any age? Is there a certain type you should use? Keep reading to get all the info you need on SPF.

Why Sunscreen Is Important at Any Age (and for All Skin Tones)

Even though people with darker skin types are less likely to get sunburn from UVB rays, they are not protected from UVA rays, which are most responsible for visible aging in the skin—think fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. [2]

In fact, UVA rays account for up to 95% of the UV radiation that we experience on earth, so protecting your skin from these rays—which penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB rays, and so can cause more damage—is essential. [3]

No matter what age you are or what skin tone or type you have, sun protection is crucial. Protecting your skin from the sun doesn’t just help with visible signs of aging—it can also lower your risk for skin cancer. Although skin cancer is more widespread in people with lighter skin tones, people with darker skin still need sun protection. [4]

Sunscreen use is considered the most important factor in any anti-aging skincare routine. You can use retinol, antioxidants and get professional treatments to keep your skin looking young and healthy, but if you aren’t using sunscreen, you’re fighting a losing battle.

All Sunscreen Is Not Created Equal—So What Kind Should You Be Using?

There are many kinds of sunscreen available. A quick online search or trip to the store will overwhelm you with options. But don’t worry, we’ll help you narrow it down by identifying what you should consider in a sunscreen, especially if you are older.

Look for Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen

First, and most importantly, look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen. These are sunscreens that protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, so they will help protect your dark skin tone from both burning and aging when getting sun exposure.

Choose a Minimum of SPF 30

Always choose sunscreens that have a minimum SPF of 30. Higher SPFs aren’t necessarily better since SPF 30 will block 97% of the sun’s rays. [5] A higher SPF may provide a bit more protection, but it’s not generally necessary. The truth is that no product can completely block the sun’s rays, so as long as your product is broad-spectrum and SPF 30, you’re off to a good start.

Physical vs. Chemical

There are two major types of sunscreens: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens are sometimes called mineral sunscreens and only use ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide as a physical protectant for the skin. Chemical sunscreens use chemicals such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, which also protect the skin.

So is one better than the other?

Whichever one you will use is a good choice. However, the major difference between these two sunscreens is that physical sunscreens are generally not clear. Some brands get pretty close at making a clear product with no white cast, so you still have options if you want invisible sunscreen for your darker skin. However, if you want truly invisible sunscreen, chemical may be the way to go.

It’s worth noting that there is some debate about the safety of ingredients in chemical sunscreens. [6] Although currently all the chemicals in these sunscreens are legal, be sure to do your homework to determine which type is right for you.

Sprays, Creams, Powders, Oh My

Sunscreen comes in many different formulas. You have the option of choosing from:

  • Creams
  • Gels
  • Lotions
  • Powders
  • Sprays
  • Sticks

Experts agree that creams, lotions and gels tend to be better than sprays because it’s easier to cover your body with the proper amount of sunscreen for adequate sun protection. [7] Powders and sprays are typically best used as supplemental protection—for example, over foundation or to help you easily reapply sunscreen when you’re on the go.

That said, whichever sunscreen you will reliably use is a good option!

Reach for Hydrating Formulas

 People with all skin tones can experience skin dryness that comes with aging, thanks to decreasing collagen and elastin and our skin producing less oil. [8] As such, it can be helpful to reach for hydrating SPF formulas, such as those with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, shea butter and ceramides. So look for these on the label of your sunscreen for extra anti-aging production (and a glow that will make your friends jealous!).

When to Apply SPF + Best Practices

You should apply sunscreen before you leave the house or even if you don’t plan on leaving your house but will be getting sun exposure from windows. More than 50% of UVA rays can pass through glass, so even if you’ll just be driving or hanging out in a room with windows, use sunscreen. [9]

Follow your specific product’s instructions for application. Some products say to apply 15-30 minutes before sun exposure. Most sunscreens will instruct you to reapply after swimming or sweating, or every two hours as needed.

As far as which step in your skincare routine, sunscreen should almost always be the last step. You may be able to apply it under foundation, but for the most part, apply it after your moisturizer or oils for better protection.

Other best sunscreen practices include:

  • Using enough to cover your body. Most adults need about one ounce to fully cover exposed areas (about a shot glass full).
  • Reapply as necessary. A mistake a lot of people make is not reapplying sunscreen every couple hours, which can result in sun damage such as a burn. Even if your sunscreen is water-resistant, reapplying is a good idea.
  • Toss expired sunscreen. Products have a shelf life for a reason, so if your product is expired, toss it. Most professionals recommend replacing your sunscreen every year.
  • Apply every day. Even if it’s cloudy outside, up to 90% of the sun’s rays still come through, so don’t skip sunscreen just because you can’t actually see the sun! [10]

Key takeaways

  • Sunscreen is important even if you have a darker skin tone—in fact, it may be more important, because although you may be less likely to burn, you are at higher risk for hyperpigmentation.
  • All sunscreen is not created equal. Always look for board-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 to protect your beautiful skin.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9709857/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4344124/

[3] https://www.skincancer.org/risk-factors/uv-radiation/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7759112/

[5] https://www.aad.org/media/stats-sunscreen

[6] https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/

[7] https://www.health.harvard.edu/skin-cancer/which-is-best-for-optimal-sun-protection-sprays-or-lotions

[8] https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/skin-care-and-aging#

[9] https://www.skincancer.org/blog/sneaky-ways-youre-being-exposed-to-the-suns-uv-rays/#

[10] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/can-you-get-sunburn-on-a-cloudy-day