Why is it that when it comes to sunscreen, we immediately think of lightly honeyed limbs growing golden in the sun? Of pale-skinned Brits abroad getting pinker by the day and of sun hat clad caucasian women dipping their toes in the edge of the pool? Where, in the midst of these images, are women of colour represented?
It’s an issue that’s long plagued the beauty industry. From the Nivea advert that showed a black woman transforming into a white woman to magazines editing out black hair on their covers, women of colour have been under and misrepresented for years. But along with simply failing to address their needs, the exclusion of women of colour from the suncare market is having much wider-reaching ramifications.
“The lack of engagement from suncare brands and even health professionals is a form of symbolic annihilation (the process whereby if you don’t see representation of yourself, you assume that it doesn’t apply to you),” explains Dija Ayodele, leading aesthetician and founder of the Black Skin Directory, a platform set up specifically to address the needs of women of colour in the UK. “There is ignorance in the black community about the need for sun protection or even how you should protect your skin in the sun,” she says, but it’s down – quite significantly – to beauty brands failing to direct crucial education towards darker skin tones.
“The suncare market predominantly educates the white public about UVB damage,” says Ayodele, since lighter skin tones are more likely to develop avoidable sunburn which can lead to skin cancer and mortality. As for UVA, “the message largely goes uncommunicated unless you are talking to a skincare professional,” she says. “Because darker skin tones are less likely to develop skin cancer, the suncare market doesn’t engage with this demographic – not from a UVB or UVA perspective,” says Ayodele.
“For some, because the stats are low on black people developing skin cancer, perhaps they feel it’s not worth the conversation. It’s so few and far between, so why bother? I say bother, because even though the stats are low a poor prognosis is 1.5 times higher because many black people are not made aware of basic things like monitoring skin for changes and seeking medical advice quickly, the way a white person would.”
It’s a problem perpetuated by the myth that black people don’t burn, which is both false and dangerous. “Regardless of skin colour, we all have generally the same amount of melanocytes, however the key determinant when it comes to black skin is the amount of melanin that the melanocytes produce,” says Ayodele. “Black skin produces more melanin than white skin and the melanocyte cells are significantly larger in black skin than they are in white. Yes melanin gives protection [around SPF 13 for black skin], but it doesn’t mean you should be complacent and forgo sun protection completely.” In fact, trends like skin bleaching to achieve a more westernised, lighter skin tone are making women of colour even more vulnerable to sun damage.
So, we know black women should and need to be catered to by the suncare market, but, when you think about it, how many brands can you name that are doing this? Specifically, how many suncare brands have you seen feature black women in their adverts? Both from a marketing and product perspective, black women are being ignored. “Mineral sunscreens [which act as a physical shield on skin] use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active protective ingredients. These two ingredients are what leaves a white ghostly cast on the skin which is off-putting to black women,” explains Ayodele. “To be fair, it can also do the same to white skin, but it’s less noticeable,” she says. “So if women of colour, wants to use a mineral sunscreen, they really have to search hard and put in the legwork to find something suitable for them.”
What then, is the solution? First things first, we need to get even more vocal. “We need continuous discussion,” says Ayodele. “I think frank and honest education around the topic is – and should be – ongoing,” she adds. “Social media helps and confuses by the same token, but in my opinion if it gets people talking, questioning and attempting to seek further information so they can make an informed decision then that is a good thing.”
Secondly, we need adverts with black women in them. “This is what spurred Black Skin Directory to produce the first ever UK suncare advert with Ultrasun using a woman of colour as the feature model as a means of encouraging conversation,” says Ayodele whose set on creating the change herself if it’s not forthcoming. But other major brands need to follow suit.
Finally, brands need to be more considerate when creating the products. “More sophisticated formulas are now emerging, including chemical sunscreens [which create a chemical reaction within skin to neutralise UV light] that don’t leave a cast,” says Ayodele. As for mineral SPFs, “brands are cottoning on to this and investing in using technology like nano-particles, for example, to improve their products to be more cosmetically elegant,” which means the thick white film is replaced in favour of a subtle, lightweight and transparent alternatives. And while tinted options still tend to cater primarily to lighten skin tones (an issue that needs to be addressed) brands like Unsun are emerging with solutions geared specifically towards people of colour and tone. It’s mineral shades are tinted to blend in with skin tones from olive to the darkest of chocolate, to provide much-needed options.
“Things are changing and improving all the time,” says Ayodele. Progress is finally being made. It’s just ludicrous it’s taken this long.
Here are 4 inclusive SPFs changing the conversation
Ultrasun SPF 30 Sports Gel, £24
Ultrasun has long advocated that all skin types need to properly protect from UVA and UVB rays. Its SPFs are encapsulated in a lamellar formula, absorb quickly and leave no greasy residue or “ashy” finish. They partnered with Black Skin Directory to raise awareness of the issue.
Unsun Tinted Mineral Sunscreen, £22.80
Unsun was set up by Katonya Breaux after she struggled to find a mineral sunscreen that didn’t leave a white cast across her complexion. So she decided to do something about it. The result is a meticulously tinted SPF that blends seamlessly into deeper skin tones.
Black Girl Sunscreen SPF30, £14.93
This chemical sunscreen is free from Oxybenzone and Octinoxate (two filters coming under fire for damaging coral reefs), instead it uses environmentally-friendly filters, applies completely sheer and also features skin nourishing ingredients like avocado and jojoba.