The problem with finding natural sunscreen as a woman of color

Of all the beauty sins to commit, says every dermatologist and magazine ever, not remembering sunscreen is at the top of the list. The consequences are bleak: wrinkles, age spots, and the big C. I’m convinced. But seriously worry about the laundry list of synthetic ingredients in sunscreens. Thankfully there are natural sunscreens marketed to people who are, for better or worse, just as paranoid as I am. But there’s a catch: I’m woman of color.

Slathering on a zinc or titanium dioxide sunscreen—the main ingredients in natural sunscreen—makes me look like the undead. The contrast between my skin color and the white oxides is too extreme to blend in. To be clear, this is not in the “rub it in and it’ll go away” kind of pasty, more like “are you sweating through your clown makeup?” Of course I’ve fooled myself many times thinking I can just rub it in with brute force. The result: white-purple streaking overlaying reddened angry skin.

To help contextualize how sunscreens can look on people of color, let me be frank about my skin tone. I’m South Asian and I fall somewhere in the middle. My makeup hues come with names like “classic tan,” “coffee,” and “caramel.” As medium as I am, walking into most drug stores I’m on the darkest end of what you can find on the shelves, which makes me wonder how my darker friends find products. For most purposes, I still am included in the limited generic color palettes, yet approaching natural sunscreens had me at a loss.

For all the fair trade labels and the we-support-local-indigenous-communities-of-color ethos, these products are not created with people of color in mind as consumers. This is surprising because there’s a large variety of  natural sunscreens out there. There’s even sunscreen for vegans (not edible, just in case you were as curious as I was). More importantly, people of color do need to wear sunscreen. We might be less likely to get skin cancer compared to lighter-skinned filks, but we certainly do get skin cancer and other damage from UV exposure. Bottom line: everyone needs sunscreen. It’s a fact touted by dermatologist and sunscreen manufacturers alike.

As a consumer of sunscreen, I just want to be as pragmatically paranoid about safe ingredients as the next (apparently pale skinned) person. The search for a natural sunscreen, however, has been difficult. Every now and then I’d give up. I got bored and tired of wasting money on sunscreens that were too light. Slather on the synthetic mystery ingredients! It didn’t work. I would get as far as picking up the bottle, then I would turn it over and read the ingredients label. It dawned on me that I would be exposing my skin to this not just daily, but reapplied “at least every two hours” if the American Academy of Dermatology had its way. Seriously, I don’t even eat that often. I might cheat a little on products used sparingly, but constant exposure to skin products without rigorous clinical safety testing? Nope.

Giving up on my granola dream wasn’t happening. Cue a Rocky-like montage, which was basically just me sitting at my computer. Since sunscreen samples aren’t really a thing at Whole Foods, I went to the internet. I read product reviews on Amazon, Environmental Working Group product recommendations, I Googled, I Google Scholared. Relatively few beauty reviews touched on the issue of chalky sunscreens on darker skin tones. Most recommendations for people of color were “rubbing it in,” which was basically the “you’re just not trying hard enough” of product use. Other recommendations were products with less scary chemicals, but didn’t manage stellar ratings for safe, well-researched ingredients. The rub (no pun intended) is that even if I didn’t care about where the ingredients came from, the most effective sun protectants are those used in natural sunscreens. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide don’t break down as easily as many synthetic alternatives and are therefore more reliable.

As frustrating as it was, my sleuthing did reveal a few work arounds. One way is to buy tinted natural sunscreens, provided they come in your skin tone, which in my experience repeats drug store varieties and skips out on skin tones darker than my own. Another option is to go for micronized (as opposed to nano) particle sunscreens, which still take effort and might flake, but overall save time. There’s also buzz, if not rigorous research, surrounding UV blocking properties of oils like red raspberry oil, which, I hope, will hold up under further studies.

Currently, I still haven’t found a product I’m completely happy with. I’m still looking. But there’s a part of me that wonders: Why is something as everyday as natural sunscreen be so difficult to find? It shouldn’t be.


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[Image via Shutterstock]