We all know we should be wearing sunscreen. Daily SPF is the number-one recommendation all dermatologists have for protecting yourself against skin cancers and to keep your skin looking young. But when we’re looking for the right coverage, how do tinted sunscreens stack up? What about sunscreens that claim to match every skin tone?
We turned to the experts to explain the chemistry behind color-matching, the evolution of one-tone-fits-all pigments, and the one thing to consider when you reach for a tinted sunscreen.
Is Tinted Sunscreen Effective?
Back when tinted sunscreens first hit the market, there was plenty of concern that they wouldn’t be as protective against sun damage compared to traditional white-cast or invisible sunscreens.
According to clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, Krupa Koestline, a tinted sunscreen can be even more effective than an invisible sunscreen. “Tinted sunscreen actually filters more than just UVA and UVB rays; it can filter visible and blue light as well,” Koestline explains. “Many sunscreens on the market are designed to minimize white cast and appear invisible on skin, but visible light can be filtered only when the sunscreen is visible on skin.”
That’s why your average, white-cast sunscreen can still claim to be more effective than something that doesn’t leave you looking like a ghost. A tinted sunscreen can leave you protected from visible light without the white cast, but it’s a weapon against the sun you have to use correctly.
According to say cosmetic chemists Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu, the very thing we like about tinted sunscreen might mean we end up using less than we should. “The amount of pigment in formulas can vary and can sometimes make us not want to use much product at all,” Fu explains. “Which means you’re not getting the advertised, tested UV protection level.”
What Makes a One-Tone Formula?
If you’ve ever seen a viral ad for foundation, you’ve probably seen the like-magic way an almost white foundation will blend into skin.
Cosmetic beauty chemist and founder of Perfect Image skincare, David Petrillo explains that these products usually work by interacting with the pH and moisture levels of your skin. “The formula typically uses ingredients that react a certain way based on the pH or moisture it comes into contact with,” Petrillo says. “So, it’s not really mimicking a particular type of skin tone, it’s reacting based on the pH levels and moisture of your skin, which can change throughout the day.”
It turns out different skin tones have very slight variations in pH level, which is how the formula knows to match your skin tone.
“When the ingredient comes into contact with the skin and its moisture, it changes the pH and solubility of those reactive ingredients, which can produce a different color that appears to be changing according to your skin tone,” Petrillo explains.
Other versions of tone matching work by focusing on blurring blemishes to provide a more even skin tone overall.
“A beauty product that claims to be one-tone-fits-all generally uses added pigments—such as iron oxides and pigmentary titanium dioxide for tinted sunscreen—to blur the appearance of blemishes,” Koestline says. “It’s formulated to be sheer but blurring, hence why it can blend seamlessly into many different skin tones.” As a result, you don’t get all that much coverage.
“’One-tone-for-all’ products tend to be much lighter coverage products that only provide a minor ‘correction’ type benefit,” Lu explains.
Can One Tone Fit All?
The experts agree: not really.
As you might have guessed, getting just one formula to match very light and very dark skin tones is not fully possible.
“This would be quite difficult to do,” Petrillp says. “If you apply the product lightly and continue to blend it in, it will appear to most likely blend with most tones, however, coverage may be minimal. With darker tones or light tones, it will be more difficult to match. I think over time with more experimentation, manufacturers can produce a more effective product, but for now, it is somewhat limited.”
One-tone shades do work for a lot of skin tones, especially tanner, medium-depth tones. In sunscreen, though, the consequence is less actual coverage.
“Universal tints can work for a wider range, but we wouldn’t say it’ll work for every skin tone,” Fu explains. “The added complexity is that tinted sunscreens vary in coverage, so we’ve often seen universal tints to be more sheer than tinted sunscreens that come in various shades.”
When using a tone-matching sunscreen on particularly darker skin (type 5 and 6 on the Fitzpatrick scale), older formulas left a slightly grey cast. But newer versions have lessened this problem with additional pigments.
“Light-to-medium skin tones typically find tinted SPF to blend into their skin better immediately,” Koestline says. “Darker skin tones may notice a slight cast, but with newer products, it typically goes away after a few minutes. Some products tend to add slightly pink or red hues in their pigments in order to mitigate the grey cast that stays behind after application on darker skin tones.”
Just One Last Thing
Like we mentioned earlier, we tend to use less tinted sunscreen than we should for adequate sun protection. Since we see that pigment spread evenly across our faces, we think that a pea-sized amount is enough.
Really, you need about a teaspoon of sunscreen to cover your face, neck and ears. For the whole body, the FDA advises a “full ounce, or shot glass” amount of sunscreen.
If you’re concerned about the impact of the tint, the color matching, or the issue of a cast, Koestline suggests applying slowly in layers to better match your skin. “One trick to assure that it blends into your skin, no matter your skin tone, is to layer it on,” she explains. “Using the two-finger method, apply one finger length of SPF product at a time, wait 15 seconds, then apply a second layer. This helps blend the products in better.”