Most of us know the importance of wearing sunscreen in the summer months to avoid sunburn and damage, but it really should be a year-round preventive health measure. Always wear sunscreen, no matter your skin color or tone. Sunscreen dates back to ancient Egypt, where rice bran extract and jasmine were used to help shield skin from the sun. Chemists invented the first commercial sunscreen in 1936, and it has been improved upon ever since. Modern sunscreens are water resistant, and are included in many cosmetics and beauty products, such as primers, foundations, serums, and creams.
Do Black people need sunscreen?
Short answer: Yes.
“Do I need sunscreen?”
This is a common question we get from black people and people of color all the time. It’s a very common and dangerous misconception. Often when I start this sunscreen conversation with a patient with dark skin type, I am greeted by the response “Black don’t crack”… or some version of this well-known phrase.
This lack of awareness is not only within the Black population but also stems from the medical community itself. Data backs up this disparity: A 2014 study found that Black people have prescribed sunscreen after ER visits roughly 9 times less than their white counterparts. Some medical conditions (e.g. lupus) flare with sunlight and are more common in darker skin types.
How sunlight affects our skin
For starters, we all need sunlight in our lives. Our skin uses sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, which is important for several processes. These include improving our immune system, bones, teeth, and cardiovascular health. Our skin’s outer layer contains melanin, critical for protecting our skin against harsh ultraviolet rays. Excess exposure to sunlight can cause an overproduction of melanin, which causes our skin to darken (aka a suntan). Sunburn happens when way too much UV rays penetrate the outer layer of our skin and damage the skin cells.
People with lighter skin have less melanin and are more prone to sunburn. As a result, they should wear sunscreen consistently to prevent sunburn and chronic sun damage to the skin. So there’s the misconception that those with dark skin do not need to worry about excess sun exposure. But that’s not necessarily true. A study showed that more than 13% of black people received a sunburn in their life. So you’re not immune. Also, some studies show more than 60% of Black persons do not wear sunscreen.
But, just because you’re not burning does not mean the sun is not doing its thing, slowly damaging your skin with its harsh rays. For dark skin, melanin gives a natural protective barrier up to about SPF 13. That means there’s still a gap to fill.
More concerning, most sunscreens aren’t marketed to black people. And many studies that involve the effectiveness of sunscreen is focused on lighter skin. These social norms add to the fact that black people aren’t concerned about wearing sunscreen.
Benefits of Wearing Sunscreen
While many people use sunscreen to prevent wrinkling and aging of the skin, the major benefit of sunscreen use is that it protects against DNA damage that usually results from chronic sun exposure and can lead to skin cancer. It is true that certain types of skin cancer, such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma are much more common in light skin. The good news is that skin cancer is curable when detected and treated early. While less common, these conditions do occur in Black people. However, they are usually diagnosed at a much more advanced and deadly stage.
Here are the top four reasons why applying sunscreen should be a daily habit year round:
- It Protects Your Skin from UV Rays: The depletion of the ozone layer has increased our risk of sun damage from harmful UV rays. Sunscreen blocks these rays, greatly reducing the likelihood of sunburn. For full body coverage you’ll want to apply about an ounce.
- It Lowers Your Skin Cancer Risk: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 71,943 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin in 2013, and 9,394 of these cases were fatal. By applying sunscreen each day, you cut your risk of contracting skin cancers in half.
- It Prevents Premature Aging of the Skin: Sun damage from UV rays causes photoaging of the skin, which is characterized by a thick, leathery look; discoloration; and a breakdown of collagen, which contributes to lines, sagging and wrinkles. Studies show that those below age 55 who apply sunscreen regularly have 24 percent less chance of developing these signs of aging than those who don’t.
- It Helps Maintain an Even Skin Tone: Sunscreen helps prevent discoloration and dark spots from sun damage, helping you maintain a smoother and more even skin tone.
There are also some cosmetic advantages. Sunscreen prevents premature aging as prolonged sun exposure can reduce elasticity, causing fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps to maintain your even skin tone as sun exposure worsens hyperpigmentation- dark spots and blotches on your skin.
Yes! Black people should wear sunscreen every day
So, the short answer to the question is yes! Everyone, including those with dark skin, need to wear sunscreen every day. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day. A broad-spectrum sunscreen is one that protects from both the damaging UVA and UVB rays. One issue that some people encounter with sunscreen is that it may leave a white film on the skin, which makes it undesirable for daily use. But the good news is that there are newer, more elegant sunscreen formulations that go on even the darkest skin, without that white film.
Make sure to protect your skin from the long-term effects of the sun.