Skin of Color

Tinted Sunscreens: Consumer Preferences Based on Light, Medium, and Dark Skin Tones

In Collaboration With The Skin Of Color Society

Author and Disclosure Information

Visible light (VL) has been shown to increase tyrosinase activity and induce immediate erythema in light-skinned individuals and long-lasting pigmentation in dark-skinned individuals. Tinted sunscreens (TSs) formulated with iron oxides (IOs) and/or pigmentary titanium dioxide (PTD) provide functional and cosmetic benefits and are a safe, effective, and convenient way to protect against both UV and high-energy VL. We conducted an analysis of over-the-counter TSs with the objective of investigating the factors that influence consumer preference when choosing TS depending on underlying skin tone. Descriptive data for each product were collected from an online supplier that provides reviewer information. The top 10 most helpful reviews were analyzed and coded by a consensus qualitative coding scheme, which included positive and negative descriptors in 5 major categories. Most products provided only one color shade, and tone incompatibility was the most commonly cited negative feature, with the vast majority of these comments being from consumers of dark skin tones. Top recommended products corresponded with increased shade options, indicating the dearth of shade diversity in products to be a potential area of improvement in tinted sunscreen options.

Practice Points

  • Visible light has been shown to increase tyrosinase activity and induce immediate erythema in light-skinned individuals and long-lasting pigmentation in dark-skinned individuals.
  • The formulation of sunscreens with iron oxides and pigmentary titanium dioxide are a safe and effective way to protect against high-energy visible light, especially when combined with zinc oxide.
  • Physicians should be aware of sunscreen characteristics that patients like and dislike to tailor recommendations that are appropriate for each individual to enhance adherence.
  • Cosmetic elegance and tone compatibility are the most important criteria for individuals seeking tinted sunscreens.



Sunscreen formulations typically protect from UV radiation (290–400 nm), as this is a well-established cause of photodamage, photoaging, and skin cancer.1 However, sunlight also consists of visible (400–700 nm) and infrared (>700 nm) radiation.2 In fact, UV radiation only comprises 5% to 7% of the solar radiation that reaches the surface of the earth, while visible and infrared lights comprise 44% and 53%, respectively.3 Visible light (VL) is the only portion of the solar spectrum visible to the human eye; it penetrates the skin to a depth range of 90 to 750 µm compared to 1.5 to 90 µm for UV radiation.4 Visible light also may come from artificial sources such as light bulbs and digital screens. The rapidly increasing use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other digital screens that emit high levels of short-wavelength VL has increased concerns about the safety of these devices. Although blue light exposure from screens is small compared with the amount of exposure from the sun, there is concern about the long-term effects of excessive screen time. Recent studies have demonstrated that exposure to light emitted from electronic devices, even for as little as 1 hour, may cause reactive oxygen species generation, apoptosis, collagen degradation, and necrosis of skin cells.5 Visible light increases tyrosinase activity and induces immediate erythema in light-skinned individuals and long-lasting pigmentation in dark-skinned individuals.4,6

Sunscreens consist of chemical and mineral active ingredients that contain UV filters designed to absorb, scatter, and reflect UV photons with wavelengths up to 380 nm. Historically, traditional options do not protect against the effects induced by VL, as these sunscreens use nanosized particles that help to reduce the white appearance and result in transparency of the product.7 To block VL, the topical agent must be visible. Tinted sunscreens (TSs) are products that combine UV and VL filters. They give a colored base coverage that is achieved by incorporating a blend of black, red, and yellow iron oxides (IOs) and/or pigmentary titanium dioxide (PTD)(ie, titanium dioxide [TD] that is not nanosized). Because TSs offer an instant glow and protect the skin from both sun and artificial light, they have become increasingly popular and have been incorporated into makeup and skin care products to facilitate daily convenient use.

The purpose of this analysis was to study current available options and product factors that may influence consumer preference when choosing a TS based on the reviewer characteristics.


The keyword sunscreen was searched in the broader category of skin care products on an online supplier of sunscreens ( This supplier was chosen because, unlike other sources, specific reviewer characteristics regarding underlying skin tone also were available. The search produced 161 results. For the purpose of this analysis, only facial TSs containing IO and/or PTD were included. Each sunscreen was checked by the authors, and 58 sunscreens that met the inclusion criteria were identified and further reviewed. Descriptive data, including formulation, sun protection factor (SPF), ingredient type (chemical or physical), pigments used, shades available, additional benefits, price range, rating, and user reviews, were gathered. The authors extracted these data from the product information on the website, manufacturer claims, ratings, and reviewer comments on each of the listed sunscreens.

For each product, the content of the top 10 most helpful positive and negative reviews as voted by consumers (1160 total reviews, consisting of 1 or more comments) was analyzed. Two authors (H.D.L.G. and P.V.) coded consumer-reported comments for positive and negative descriptors into the categories of cosmetic elegance, performance, skin compatibility and tolerance, tone compatibility, and affordability. Cosmetic elegance was defined as any feature associated with skin sensation (eg, greasy), color (eg, white cast), scent, ability to blend, and overall appearance of the product on the skin. Product performance included SPF, effectiveness in preventing sunburn, coverage, and finish claims (ie, matte, glow, invisible). Skin compatibility and tolerance were represented in the reviewers’ comments and reflected how the product performed in association with underlying dermatologic conditions, skin type, and if there were any side effects such as irritation or allergic reactions. Tone compatibility referred to TS color similarity with users’ skin and shades available for individual products. Affordability reflected consumers’ perceptions of the product price. Comments may be included in multiple categories (eg, a product was noted to blend well on the skin but did not provide enough coverage). Of entries, 10% (116/1160 reviews) were coded by first author (H.D.L.G.) to ensure internal validity. Reviewer characteristics were consistently available and were used to determine the top 5 recommended products for light-, medium-, and dark-skinned individuals based on the number of 5-star ratings in each group. Porcelain, fair, and light were considered light skin tones. Medium, tan, and olive were considered medium skin tones. Deep, dark, and ebony were considered dark skin tones.


Sunscreen Characteristics—Among the 161 screened products, 58 met the inclusion criteria. Four types of formulations were included: lotion, cream, liquid, and powder. Twenty-nine (50%) were creams, followed by lotions (19%), liquids (28%), and powders (3%). More than 79% (46/58) of products had a reported SPF of 30 or higher. Sunscreens with an active physical ingredient—the minerals TD and/or zinc oxide (ZO)—were most common (33/58 [57%]), followed by the chemical sunscreens avobenzone, octinoxate, oxybenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and/or octocrylene active ingredients (14/58 [24%]), and a combination of chemical and physical sunscreens (11/58 [19%]). Nearly all products (55/58 [95%]) contained pigmentary IO (red, CI 77491; yellow, CI 77492; black, CI 77499). Notably, only 38% (22/58) of products had more than 1 shade. All products had additional claims associated with being hydrating, having antiaging effects, smoothing texture, minimizing the appearance of pores, softening lines, and/or promoting even skin tone. Traditional physical sunscreens (those containing TD and/or ZO) were more expensive than chemical sunscreens, with a median price of $30. The median review rating was 4.5 of 5 stars, with a median of 2300 customer reviews per product. Findings are summarized in Table 1.

Tinted Sunscreen Characteristics and Descriptors of the Top 10 Most Helpful Positive and Negative Comments as Voted by Consumers

Positive Features of Sunscreens—Based on an analysis of total reviews (N=1160), cosmetic elegance was the most cited positive feature associated with TS products (31%), followed by product performance (10%). Skin compatibility and tolerance (7%), tone compatibility (7%), and affordability (7%) were cited less commonly as positive features. When negative features were cited, consumers mostly noted tone incompatibility (16%) and cosmetic elegance concerns (14%). Product performance (13%) was comparatively cited as a negative feature (Table 1). Exemplary positive comments categorized in cosmetic elegance included the subthemes of rubs in well and natural glow. Exemplary negative comments in cosmetic elegance and tone compatibility categories included the subthemes patchy/dry finish and color mismatch. Table 1 illustrates these findings.


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