Our skin fulfills many tasks. It helps regulate body temperature, keeps bacteria and other insects at bay, and is key to our sense of touch.
Skin unites us all in these common functions, but our skin also differs in cosmetically visible ways.
Your skin tone can affect how quickly you develop wrinkles and sun spots. It can also affect whether you’re more prone to hyperpigmentation, dark areas on your skin.
Skin tone is not just a matter of race as people from the same background can have very different skin tones. Race and ethnicity don’t usually accurately reflect skin tone, says Anna Chien, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Doctors speak of “skin types” from 1 to 6. Skin type 1 is the palest, which always burns and never tans. Midtones like Type 4 are light brown, tan easily, and rarely burn. The darkest, skin type 6, is deeply pigmented and never burns. This set of skin types is also called “Fitzpatrick skin typing,” named after the doctor who developed it. It is based on how much pigment is in a person’s skin and how their skin reacts to sun exposure.
Hear from three dermatologists how skin tone can impact our skincare routines.
Doctors call sun damage “photoaging,” which includes the wrinkles and sunspots that can result from sun exposure.
This tends to happen “a little faster” in people with lighter skin types, says Chien. “And they’re more prone to skin cancer.”
In contrast, people with darker skin tones “often have delayed signs of photoaging. They also have a lower risk of skin cancer,” says Dr. Julia Mhlaba, assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “This pigment actually provides sun protection.”
But it’s important to remember that a reduced risk of skin cancer doesn’t mean zero risk. “Any skin can get skin cancer,” says Shani Francis, MD, a dermatologist in the Los Angeles area.
Misconceptions that people with darker skin don’t get skin cancer are dangerous because it can lead to delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis. “We can definitely see skin cancer in black people,” says Chien. “And unfortunately, because it’s not often talked about… the skin cancer can be found later, when it’s much more advanced.”
In people with darker skin, cancer can also appear in places “where patients don’t typically get sun exposure, like the palms and feet,” says Mhlaba.
All skin tones require sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 – every day, rain or shine – to prevent skin cancer and slow photoaging.
“We always recommend sun protection, even for dark-skinned people [and in] People who say, “I never burn; I keep tanning, they still get damage in the skin,” says Chien.
If you’re going to be outdoors for long periods of time, use at least an SPF of 60, says Chien. Repeat application frequently, especially when active, sweating, swimming or getting wet.
Physical blocking sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide offer the best protection, according to experts. But on darker skin, these products aren’t always cosmetically elegant.
“It can cause a white film on the skin, which is challenging for those with darker skin tones,” says Chien. She recommends tinted sunscreens, which may better suit her skin tone.
Tinted sunscreens may offer other benefits. In dark-skinned people, longer wavelengths beyond UV rays can be more harmful than in people with lighter skin, says Chien. “The tint can actually protect against a little longer wavelength that your skin might be more sensitive to,” she explains.
Don’t just rely on sunscreen. “I always tell my patients that sunscreen isn’t perfect,” says Chien. “We have to reapply and combine [it] with other measures.”
These include wearing sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts, avoiding peak sun exposure, seeking shade, and wearing wide-brimmed hats. She calls it a “multimodal approach to sun protection.”
And don’t just rely on SPF in makeup to give you enough protection, says Chien. “The SPF they get in a lab setting — they usually put on a pretty heavy amount of this makeup so it doesn’t really mimic everyday use.”
Regular use of sunscreen and moisturizer can slow down the signs of aging. And here’s how you can use a retinoid or retinol on your skin.
“These are vitamin A derivatives that can either be bought in over-the-counter versions or prescribed in higher strengths by a dermatologist,” says Mhlaba. “They do a lot of things: They’re used to treat acne. They can help with pigmentation. But they can also help smooth fine lines and prevent wrinkles.”
People with darker skin tones can use stronger retinoids but need to start slowly to avoid skin irritation, says Mhlaba. “If they develop irritation, hyperpigmentation can occur more easily than in patients with lighter skin types,” she explains.
Her advice: when you start using a retinol or retinoid, only apply a small amount to your face and do this every few days at first. Follow with a moisturizer to control skin irritation.
Wearing sunscreen on your face not only slows photoaging, says Mhlaba, but it can also help keep hyperpigmentation from getting worse.
Hyperpigmentation can occur on all skin types but is more common in people of color, says Mhlaba.
“It can appear through acne scars or eczema or at trauma sites, and then there are other conditions that lead to hyperpigmentation, like melasma,” she says. Melasma appears as darker pigment patches, especially on the face.
Sun exposure can make hyperpigmentation worse — another reason sunscreen is so important. Products that can treat hyperpigmentation include vitamin C serum or products containing vitamin C, glycolic acid, azelaic acid, and niacinamide, notes Mhlaba.
For melasma, dermatologists may also prescribe hydroquinone-based compounds or oral medications.
Dry skin can affect all skin tones. “But when your skin is darker, dry skin is bright white, and so there’s more contrast. It’s much more noticeable,” says Francis. This dry appearance comes from the scales on the skin.
Darker skin that gets dry might benefit from “a really good, heavyweight moisturizer, something that might help rebuild the skin.” [skin] barrier,” says Chien.
Don’t judge a product by how thick it looks in the container. What’s more important is how thick it is against the skin, says Francis. She suggests looking for ingredients like ceramides, glycerin, castor oil, petrolatum, and hemp oil.
Apply the moisturizer to damp skin after a shower or bath. “It will keep the water in the skin,” she says.
People of all skin tones can have sensitivity issues. “Stick to really boring products,” says Chien. Choose unscented products and stay away from products labeled as antibacterial.
“Keep the skincare routine fairly simple: just a gentle facial cleanser, a mild moisturizer, something with built-in SPF for the day, and just a basic moisturizer at night,” she says.
People with sensitive skin can spot test a product behind their ear or upper arm to make sure they don’t have a reaction to the product, Chien says.
She recommends “not adding a lot of serums or anti-aging products. Many of these can be irritants.”
When people with sensitive skin want an exfoliant, “it’s a little more patient-specific in terms of what their skin can handle,” says Mhlaba. Physical scrubs can be too harsh. But “if you’re talking about a chemical peel, I would definitely recommend starting slowly and building up to daily use as needed. Sometimes even just…once a week, depending on the product, can be enough.”
“Look for things with salicylic acid, glycolic acid,” she says. “A lot of topical creams have that. It’s a good way to exfoliate.”