Do Black people need sunscreen? It’s an age-old question that has a definite answer; yes!
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American spends 93 percent of their life indoors. To clarify, 87 percent of that indoors time is actually indoors and the other 6 percent of that is spent in an automobile. Which means, the average American only spends about 12 hours per week outside!
Wow, that doesn’t seem like a lot of time does it? If you were thinking this then you are absolutely right!
While research shows that we are not spending a lot of time outdoors, the time that we are spending outside can be dangerous if we don’t take the proper precautions. Americans spend the majority of their time outdoors during the summer when the weather is nicer and the sun shines longer. With that, however, comes the overlooked damage to your skin the sun can cause if you are not protecting yourself with sunscreen.
This leads me to my next point: who really needs sunscreen and why do we need it? The simple answer to this question is that everyone does.
Let me repeat that. Everyone needs sunscreen.
There is a myth that African Americans don’t need to use sunscreen. People will argue (I literally had someone argue with me about this) that African Americans a) do not sunburn and b) cannot get skin cancer. These statements are not only ridiculous, but they are extremely false!
There are some factors that may influence people to think these myths are true and it is important to note them. African Americans have a high amount of melanin which gives color to our skin, eyes, and hair. The more melanin, the darker your skin.
People of African descent with higher amounts of melanin have a natural SPF factor which can be up to 13 compared to Caucasians which are about 3-4. The natural SPF of our skin shields us from UV sun rays, and can thus decrease our risk of skin cancer and showing signs of aging. You may have heard the expression, “Black don’t crack” and were either confused or not sure what that meant. Because our skin has a natural protectant from UV rays, we are less likely to show signs of aging caused by the sun such as wrinkles, fine, lines, and age spots.
UV Rays Damage Everyone’s Skin
“Dark skin does have built-in SPF,” says Amy Wechsler, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York City and assistant clinical professor of dermatology, SUNY Downstate Medical College. That’s because darker people naturally produce more melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color, and the more melanin you have, the fewer UV rays penetrate your skin. For example, a National Cancer Institute study noted that medium dark skin filters out about twice as much UV (ultraviolet) radiation as white skin.
Melanin increases in response to sun exposure and skin gets darker, but that “tan” isn’t protecting your skin; it’s a sign of sun damage. “UV exposure causes cell damage, and the body produces more melanin as a protective mechanism,” says David Bank, M.D., director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Westchester County, N.Y.
Although people of color might not burn as quickly as people with light skin, they can and do get sunburned. In a 2014 study, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute reported that 13 percent of African-Americans and 31 percent of Hispanics surveyed said they had experienced at least one sunburn in the past year. Redness, the telltale sign of sun damage, might not be as evident on darker skin, but skin can still feel hot, tight, and painful.
Time in the Sun Will Age Your Skin
The damage caused by UV exposure will also make your skin look older. “Photodamage in people of color will lead to sagging of the skin, loss of volume from the face, and hyperpigmentation,” says Jeanine Downie, M.D., a dermatologist in private practice in Montclair, N.J. “While people with lighter skin tones tend to see fine lines and wrinkles show up first, people of color will see changes in pigmentation that lead to dark patches and uneven skin tone.”
You Can Find a Sunscreen to Suit You
Regardless of the color of your skin, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher and reapplying it every two hours or immediately after swimming or heavy sweating.
CDC researchers surveyed more than 4,000 Americans asking how often they used sunscreen on their faces or exposed skin on their bodies when they were outside in the sun for longer than an hour. Among men, 4 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Hispanics used it on their faces, and 7 percent of blacks and 12 percent of Hispanics used sunscreen on their bodies. Women had a higher rate of regular sunscreen use, with 15 percent of black women and 36 percent of Hispanic women using it on their faces and 10 percent and 26 percent, respectively, using it on their bodies.
It’s true that some sunscreens are thick, pasty, and white—none of which is ideal for darker skin tones. “You don’t want to end up looking ashy,” says Wechsler. “It may require some trial and error, but looking for formulas that are more liquid and sheer will be your best options.”
Any Unusual Skin Changes Could Be a Sign of Trouble
Even though skin cancer occurs less frequently in people with dark skin than in Caucasians, Africans-Americans and Hispanics both have high mortality rates if they do develop the disease. In part, that’s because skin cancer often isn’t diagnosed in people of color until a later stage when the disease is more advanced. In a 2006 study published in the Archives of Dermatology, researchers analyzed 1,690 melanoma cases. They found that 26 percent of those diagnosed in Hispanics and 52 percent of those in African-Americans were advanced (compared with 16 percent in Caucasians).
One reason people of color aren’t diagnosed with skin cancer until the disease has advanced is that the early warning signs often go unnoticed. “Skin cancer can look different in different skin types,” says Downie. “And often doctors don’t think about skin cancer when they’re treating people of color.” But Downie warns that any skin changes—such as a new mole or one that grows or changes, a patch of skin that changes color, a scab that won’t heal, or a dark spot under your nail—are worth getting looked at by a dermatologist.
Skin Cancer Can Occur Even in Spots That Rarely See the Sun
While Caucasians typically develop skin cancer in areas that get the most UV exposure, African-Americans often experience the opposite. Common sites for skin cancer to occur in people of color include the bottoms of the feet, palms of the hands, and underneath finger and toenails (the singer Bob Marley died from melanoma that began under his toenail).
Existing Scars Can Be Skin Cancer Danger Zones
If you have any scars—especially those that resulted from a thermal or chemical burn—keep a close eye on them (and protect them carefully from the sun). People of color are more likely to develop nonmelanoma skin cancer in an area that’s scarred or inflamed. And it can be life-threatening if left unchecked. According to a National Cancer Institute study, when squamous cell cancer develops in a person of color at the site of a long-standing scar, there is a 20 to 40 percent risk of spreading. If you notice a scar suddenly changing, becoming inflamed or otherwise altered, see your dermatologist.
How to choose best sunscreen for your skin?
1. Make sure your sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays
The sun gives us two main types of wavelengths – UVA and UVB.
Both can cause tanning and burning (and skin cancer), but it’s only the UVB rays that are necessary for the skin to make vitamin D3.
The UVA rays on the other hand penetrate the skin deeper than UVB and can cause severe free radical damage including wrinkles and photo-aging. They also destroy vitamin D!
Most of us are exposed to large amounts of UVA throughout our lifetime. UVA rays account for up to 95 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.
Although they are less intense than UVB, UVA rays are 30 to 50 times more prevalent. They are present with relatively equal intensity during all daylight hours throughout the year, and can penetrate clouds and glass.
UVB is the chief cause of skin reddening, blisters and sunburn, but tends to damage the skin’s more superficial epidermal layers. UVB rays do not significantly penetrate glass.
So you definitely don’t want a sunscreen that blocks only UVB rays and not UVA rays. This would totally work against you by limiting vitamin D3 production and damaging your skin.
2. No Spray Sunscreens
Do black people need sunscreen? We have answer: Yes! Given the ease of applying them on squirming kids and hard-to-reach areas, these super-popular aerosolized sunscreens may seem like a dream come true. But they may pose serious inhalation risks. They certainly make it too easy to apply too little or miss a spot.
3. No Super-High SPFs
Products with sky-high SPFs may protect against sunburn but could leave your skin exposed to damaging UVA rays.
SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and refers only to protection against UVB radiation, which burns the skin. It has little to do with protection from sun’s UVA rays, which penetrate deep into the skin, suppress the immune system, accelerate skin aging and may cause skin cancer.
High-SPF products may give people a false sense of security, tempt them to stay in the sun too long, suppress sunburns but upping the risk of other kinds of skin damage. The FDA is considering limiting SPF claims to 50+, as is done in other countries.
EWG recommends that consumers avoid products labeled with anything higher than SPF 50 and reapply sunscreen often, regardless of SPF.
4. Choose a sunscreen without harmful chemicals
You should be aware of that mass market sunscreens are full of harmful chemicals that may disrupt hormones and even promote cancer.
Researchers at the University of California discovered that the chemical oxybenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreens to absorb UVA and UVB, boosts the production of dangerous free radicals in your skin after just 20 minutes of exposure to the sun!
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says approx. 56% of beach and sport sunscreens contain oxybenzone (benzophenone-3).
After doing studies, the EWG believe that oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption and potentially to cell damage, that may lead to skin cancer.
The EWG also recommends consumers to avoid sunscreens with retinyl palminate. Studies have found that this type of vitamin A may increase risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin.
Sunscreens that contains vitamin A or retinol may actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when sunlight is present.
Many skin care creams for the face contain vitamin A and fragrances. Make sure not to use them when you’re spending time in the sun.
5. No Retinyl Palmitate
When used in a night cream, this form of vitamin A is supposed to have anti-aging effects. But on sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may speed development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies. Why is this “inactive ingredient” allowed in sunscreens intended for use in the sun? Good question.
The FDA has yet to rule on the safety of retinyl palmitate in skin care products, but EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens containing this chemical.
6. No Combined Sunscreen/Bug Repellents
Skip products that combine bug repellent with sunscreen. Why? For starters, bugs are typically not a problem during the hours when UV exposure peaks. Also, sunscreen may need to be reapplied more frequently than repellent, or vice versa. We recommend that you avoid using repellents on your face, too. Studies suggest that combining sunscreens and repellents leads to increased skin absorption of the repellent ingredients.
7. Use sun protection with low SPF most of the time and sun protection with a high SPF occasionally
If you use sunscreen with high SPF all the time, there is a potential risk of vitamin D3 deficiency. Typical use of sunscreen doesn’t result in vitamin D3 deficiency, but extensive usage may. And vitamin D deficiency may increase your odds of developing melanoma and other diseases. Depending on your skin type and where you live, you should be able to spend 10 – 60 minutes a day in the sun without any protection at all so that your body can produce enough vitamin D.
If you use a sunscreen with a low SPF (10-20) most of the time and only use a high SPF sunscreen (30-50) when you’re spending a long time directly in the sun, you should get enough vitamin D3 AND enough protection for your skin.