Words: Claire Coleman
When was the last time someone asked you if you had sun cream on? Or told you that you’ve “probably had enough sun”? If you’ve got pale skin, it was probably the last time the temperature went above 15°C. If, on the other hand, you’re olive-skinned, or darker, you’re more likely to have someone say how lucky you are that you don’t burn.
As frustrating as they are, we all make assumptions about how skin reacts to the sun. The paler you are, the more protection your skin needs, right? Not exactly.
New, groundbreaking research has revealed unequivocally that sun damage affects all skin, whatever its colour. At the recent American Academy of Dermatology annual conference, Procter & Gamble presented brand new research comparing sun-exposed skin from around 225 Caucasian and African-American women. While they concluded that women of African-American descent aged more slowly, as Olay principal scientist, Dr Frauke Neuser, explains, they definitely weren’t immune to sun damage.
“When you look at the visible signs of ageing, African-American women are undoubtedly ‘doing better’ than Caucasian women of the same age: they have fewer, shallower wrinkles, better elasticity,” she says. “However, when you look at the genetic material, even in African-American women you can see that the sun has had an impact on the skin, even if you can’t see it on the surface.”
While sun damage on Caucasian skin tends to manifest itself as lines and wrinkles, on darker skin types it is more likely to cause problems with pigmentation. It’s a message that has been slow to catch on.
“My mother’s Nigerian and has never used suntan lotion. I just followed her lead and assumed I’d be OK,” says Stylist’s contributing beauty writer, Loretta de Feo. “It’s only really since I began working in the industry that I realised my skin was at risk of sun damage. On one recent holiday, my skin went very dark and painfully dry – no moisturiser seemed to make a difference and it stayed like that for months.”
“It’s true that because darker skin has higher levels of melanin [the pigment which gives skin its colour], it offers a greater natural level of sun protection than lighter skin,” says aesthetic doctor Dr Barbara Sturm, who in July will launch a skincare range designed specifically for darker skin tones.
In fact, research suggests that the outermost layer of dark skin lets in five times less UVA rays (associated predominantly with ageing) and has an intrinsic sun protection factor of 13.4 (light skin has a built-in SPF of 3.4) “But,” she adds, “that doesn’t mean darker skin isn’t being damaged.”
Regardless of ethnicity, most dermatologists would advise the usual safe sun rules – stay out of the sun between 11am and 3pm, wear a hat and sunglasses and use broad spectrum sun protection of at least SPF30. But, there’s no doubting that the natural colour of your skin will predispose you more to certain sun-induced problems than others.
With this in mind, we’ve simplified the SPF conundrum. Find the description that best suits your skin, and the suncare regime to match.
Pale or very pale skin with blonde or red hair that will burn or tan minimally. Likely to be of Celtic descent
If you have fair skin, you know the sun is not your friend. You’re more likely to get freckles (a form of sun-induced pigmentation and an early indication of how prone to sun damage you are) and show signs of wrinkling earlier. The chances of getting skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma that occur almost exclusively on sun-exposed pale skin, are also higher.
Even without burning, your skin is being damaged. “Our research shows that even sub-erythemic doses of sun [not enough to change the colour of the skin] can damage the DNA,” says Mark Birch-Machin, professor in molecular dermatology at Newcastle University. Constant protection then, is key.
The Golden Rules
Find a really high factor, broad spectrum product (SPF50+) that you are happy to reapply regularly.
Ensure your product offers maximum protection against UVA (which ages the skin) as well as UVB (which causes skin to burn) – look for UVA in a circle.
Wear sun protection on your face all year, even if it’s not obviously sunny.
1. DNA Defense SPF50+, £55, DNA Renewal (cultbeauty.co.uk)
As well as offering high-level sun protection, this face cream has DNA repair enzymes to ‘undo’ existing sun damage.
2. Marula Dry Oil Self Tan SPF 50, £39, Vita Liberata (boots.com)
A super-moisturising fake tan for the body with high sun protection.
3. Resist Youth Extending Daily Hydrating SPF50 Fluid, £10, Paula’s Choice (paulaschoice.co.uk)
A lightweight, hydrating, shine-free daily sun protection for the face.
4. Sun Protective Day Cleanser SPF30, £65, Dr Russo (drrussoskincare.com)
When you’re this pale, it’s worth boosting sun protection however you can in your skincare routine.
Creamy skin with any colour hair, that sometimes burns, but can tan. Likely to be of European descent
While not as likely to burn as fair skin, and less prone to pigmentation than those with darker skin, you still need to be wary of the sun. In a paper published in 2013, researchers found that signs of ageing, including wrinkles, are exacerbated by sun exposure. And paler skins are more likely to be affected by these types of changes.
In fact, the P&G research showed that while the thickness of the top two layers of skin in African-American women didn’t change with age, in Caucasian women the outermost layer of the skin got thinner, while the very top layer got thicker. In real terms, this means you’re more likely to see blood vessels and wrinkles through the skin, while the thicker the top layer, the rougher and more leathery it is likely to be.
The Golden Rules
Look for ingredients that will help boost levels of collagen and elastin, which help maintain skin firmness.
Make sure you protect the eye area as this is one of the first places to show sun damage.
Ensure the rest of your skincare works predominantly to maintain the texture of your skin.
1. Hydrabio Eau de Soin SPF30, £9, Bioderma (boots.com)
Carry this SPF30 water mist in your handbag so you can boost sun protection on the go.
2. Suncare Very High Protection Face and Eye Area SPF50+, £50, Bakel (lookfantastic.com)
A broad spectrum protection with ingredients to support collagen fibres and improve elasticity.
3. Regenerist Night Renewal Elixir, £29.99, Olay (olay.co.uk)
Repair damage at night with a serum that will gently exfoliate, hydrate and resurface skin.
4. Tablets and Cream, £39.95, Nourella (nourella.com)
This cream and supplement improve skin thickness and elasticity.
Olive to light brown skin that rarely appears to burn. Likely to be of Asian, American Indian, Mediterranean or Latin American descent
According to Dr Ophelia Dadzie of the British Association of Dermatologists, the darker your skin is, the more prone you are to pigmentation. “Pigmentary issues are the leading problem I see in my clinic,” says Dr Dadzie, director of The London Ethnic Skin Clinic. “I advise the use of broad spectrum sun protection that protects against UVA, UVB and visible light. Recent research shows this light also causes inflammation, and consequently pigmentation.”
Unfortunately, products that offer protection against the full spectrum are those which often leave a whitish hue on darker skins. Dr Dadzie advises applying make-up on top.
The Golden Rules
Find something that works for you – you need to like it enough to use it religiously.
Look for products that contain ingredients such as niacinamide, which helps correct and protect against pigmentation.
Use mineral make-up, which blocks visible light, but is tinted so won’t leave a whitish hue.
1. Pigmentclar UV SPF30, £26, La Roche-Posay (boots.com)
A daily moisturiser formulated with niacinamide to tackle dark spots.
2. Invisiblur Perfecting Shield SPF30 PA+++, £55, Murad (murad.co.uk)
Antioxidant-rich lightweight formula that blurs imperfections and leaves zero white marks.
3. Perfecting Minerals, £29, Elizabeth Arden Pro (elizabethardenpro.com, available in spas, salons and clinics)
An SPF25 broad-spectrum mineral powder in six shades. Use as your foundation. It’s particularly good if your suncream has left skin whitish, or for on-the-go top-ups.
4. Original Brightening Day Cream SPF15, £9.29, Fade Out (boots.com)
This facial moisturiser protects against dark spots.
Very dark skin and hair that doesn’t visibly burn. Likely to be of African or Indian descent
If you have darker skin, it’s likely you weren’t brought up using sun protection. “I damaged my skin because I didn’t realise you had to reapply sunscreen regularly,” says de Feo. “I never felt that sun protection adverts were relevant to me.”
While the higher levels of melanin in dark skin protect against damage to an extent, they’re also associated with higher levels of free radicals, which are skin aggressors and accelerate ageing. Look for antioxidants in SPF to neutralise free radicals. Vitamin D deficiency can also be a problem as melanin slows down the skin’s natural production of vitamin D from the sun, so have your levels checked.
The Golden Rules
Apply sun protection 15 to 30 minutes before you go into the sun and reapply every two hours, and after swimming or exercise.
Although you definitely do still need protection against UV, you should also prioritise antioxidant protection.
Find a non-oily product that won’t block pores, as darker skins produce more sebum so are more prone to shine.
1. Protect & Cool Refreshing Sun Mousse SPF30, £14.50, Piz Buin (superdrug.com)
A cooling mousse for all over the body. It leaves zero oily residue or white marks.
2. Sun Fluid Anti-Age SPF 50, £13.30, Eucerin (lookfantastic.com)
This face cream is recommended by Dr Dadzie because it offers non-greasy, full-spectrum protection plus antioxidants.
For when the sun goes down...
Meet the most multitasking and innovative aftersuns on the market
1. Overnight Summer Skin Recovery Mask, £39, Ultrasun (spacenk.com)
Apply at night and let the hyaluronic acid and brown algae battle the elements.
2. Ambre Solaire After Sun Tan Maintainer, £5, Garnier (boots.com)
Formulated with a low-level tanning agent, this creamy lotion is great for fair skin that struggles to bronze in the sun.
3. High Repair After-Sun Balm, £32, Decléor (decleor.co.uk)
The aragon, jojoba and avocado oil in this SOS balm help to soothe burns and prevent peeling.
4. Idéal Soleil After-Sun In Shower Spray, £13, Vichy (escentual.com)
Just spritz on this hydrating formula in the shower before rinsing off.
5. After Sun Shimmer Oil, £32, Clarins (clarins.co.uk)
This multipurpose oil rehydrates and soothes while also giving skin a soft golden shimmer. It can also be used on sun-parched hair.
Main image: Sabine Villiard. Additional images: iStock