"You’ve already got a beautiful skin colour," tends to be the response most women of colour get when we tell our lighter skinned friends that we want a tan. Of course, we too enjoy the beauty benefits of a sun-kissed glow, but as our Caucasian counterparts are buying their tans in a bottle, many dark skinned women are baking in the sun under the illusion that our higher levels of melanin make us immune to the dangers of UV – namely melanoma and other types of skin cancer. The shocking part? It's nothing but a myth.
"Yes, the more melanin you have, the more natural protection you have from the sun," explains Eudelo medical director and dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams, "but don’t think that if you have dark skin, you won’t experience sun damage – there’s still a risk." This is something Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin 55 and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin, elaborates on. "Research suggests that black skin has a natural sun protection factor (SPF) of 13.4 compared to white skin, which is about 3.4. The melanin absorbs UV light and has the ability to block free radical damage," she explains, but cumulative sun exposure will still lead to the signs we associate with ageing skin, which is why, contrary to popular belief, sun protection is a must for women of colour.
"For those with darker skin, using an SPF 15-30 will be sufficient," adds Dr Mahto. "That said, those with dark skin types should also be practising preventative measures." These include: seeking shade in peak daylight hours, choosing protective clothing like hats and sunglasses, and choosing a broad spectrum SPF, which shields against UVA rays (which traditionally penetrate the skin and result in things like pigmentation and fine lines) and UVB (associated with burns).
Why is this more important than ever before? Well, over the last 30 years, rates of melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer, which, to the untrained eye, can look like a harmless mole) have quadrupled in Britain. Shockingly, skin cancer diagnosis is disproportionately high in younger women. Although less common in darker skin, when skin cancer does occur, it often presents at a deeper and more advanced stage, which equates to a more life threatening diagnosis.
"One of the reasons for this could be the lack of awareness of the importance of sun protection for those with higher levels of melanin," explains Dr Williams, something Dija Ayodele, aesthetician and founder of The Black Skin Directory, agrees with. "More often than not, Caucasians are taught to regularly check their skin and their moles, but as a black woman I wasn't brought up to do that – and I don’t think many people of colour undergo mole checking every year. This means many of us tend to visit the GP in the later stages of the disease, resulting in recovery rates that are lower than those of our Caucasian counterparts, who notice the changes in their skin sooner."
Although less common in darker skin, when melanoma does occur, it often presents at a deeper and more advanced stage, which equates to a more life threatening diagnosis.
So, with excessive sunbathing off the cards, could fake tan be the answer? Yes, says Jules Von Hep, tanning expert and founder of inclusive fake tan brand, Isle of Paradise. "It’s a complete misconception that a faux tan is just for Caucasian skin," Von Hep tells me. "Self-tan is designed to work with the skin, period, whatever colour it may be, as the darkening effect is simply the byproduct of the reaction of tanning agent (DHA) with amino acids in the skin." He continues: "It may be hard to believe, as up until very recently brands have never marketed their tanning products to women of colour, but just like when we get a real tan, a faux version also works to even out skin tone." Even better? It can act like a filter, masking pigmentation (a common gripe in darker skin tones) as well as stretch marks and redness.
That said, we’d hazard a guess that over the years you’ve witnessed some Oompa Loompa-esque disasters, which means you're not only dubious that fake tan can work for you, but turned off by the idea of applying it yourself. If this is a concern, your best bet is a spray tan. In fact, you’d be surprised by how many big name brands, such as St Tropez, Sienna X and Xen Tan offer options for darker skin tones. And you can easily bypass any possible faux pas with DIY options by prepping your skin correctly and choosing the right formulation for your needs.
"It's important that hair removal is conducted at least 24 hours before tanning," explains Von Hep. "You can also minimise the appearance of pores by using a frozen face cloth. Simply place a damp face cloth in the freezer for at least four hours, then sweep it over your skin before applying your tan. And don’t apply any moisturiser to your torso or limbs before using a fake tan. Do, however, use a deeply nourishing shea butter balm on the hands, elbows, knees and feet, instead of the typically recommended lighter aloe vera-based moisturiser," explains Von Hep. This is because darker skin tends to be drier so will likely absorb more of the tanning formula, and when it comes to these particular areas of the body, you don’t want to develop too much colour here.
Formulation-wise, lotions and tanning oils are the most hydrating, while mousses dry quickly (perfect if you're in a rush) and sprays provide the closest alternative to a professional tan. When it comes to choosing a shade, those with lighter skin should opt for 'medium', while women of colour who are darker should go for formulations with a higher level of DHA, such as Fake Bake Flawless Darker Self Tan Liquid, £26, James Read Tan Foolproof Bronzing Mousse in Dark, £18, and Isle of Paradise Dark Self Tanning Drops, £19.95. And remember, the technique you use to apply is crucial. "Invest in a tanning mitt and apply your tan in upward sweeping motions beginning at the ankles," finishes Von Hep.
While research confirms that main tanning agent DHA has been approved in self-tanning products, it always pays to conduct a patch test before using a new product, especially if your skin is prone to irritation.