Blacks, as well as others who tend to have darker complexions, don’t have to worry about sunscreen – the higher levels of melanin in their skin is enough to protect them from potentially-harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Right?
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and while whites tend to get it more, anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of their skin color.
“Cancer is harder to detect on darker complexions, so by the time it is found, it may have progressed further,” says Fran E. Cook-Bolden, M.D., director of Skin Specialty Dermatology and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
In fact, many patients, and even some physicians, have subscribed to the notion that non-whites don’t get skin cancer, which is just one of the reasons why people of color tend to be diagnosed with skin cancer at more advanced, and often more fatal, stages.
Just think: the legendary reggae musician Bob Marley died at 36 from an aggressive form of melanoma after his symptoms under his toenail were dismissed as a soccer injury.
The Role of Melanin In Sun Protection
Very simply, melanin is a dark brown to black pigment that occurs in the hair, skin, and irises. Melanin is what causes the skin to tan when it’s exposed to sunlight.
Melanin helps protect the skin against effects of the sun such as skin cancers and premature aging. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, melanin provides a sun protection factor (SPF) approximately equivalent to 13.4, compared to 3.4 in white skin.
Sun Protection 101
While melanin does offer some sun protection, that 13.4 isn’t nearly enough to protect against the UVA and UVB rays that cause cancer and age skin. Plus, because cells affected by UV rays produce more melanin, tanning is actually a sign that skin damage has already occurred.
According to the CDC, the sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes.
So, what do you need to do to protect your skin?
Wear sunglasses. Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure.
But which sunglasses are the best ones for you?
Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection. Most sunglasses sold in the United States, regardless of cost, meet this standard. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they block UV rays from sneaking in from the side.
Bask in the shade. You can reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an umbrella, tree, or other shelter.
Grab a hat. Wear a hat with a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears, and the back of your neck. A tightly woven fabric, such as canvas, works best to protect your skin from UV rays. Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through. A darker hat may offer more UV protection.
If you wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck by wearing clothing that covers those areas, using sunscreen with at least SPF 15, or by staying in the shade.
Apply that sunscreen. Sunscreens are assigned an SPF number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. People with darker skin types should aim for at least SPF 15 (though an SPF of at least 30 is even better).
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside – even on slightly cloudy or cool days. Put some on any exposed skin, including your back.
Also, remember that sunscreen wears off, so make sure you reapply it if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.
What About The SPF In Cosmetics & Beauty Products?
More and more beauty products, including body lotion, face creams, makeup and lip balms, are being formulated with some of the same chemicals used in sunscreens. However, it’s important to note that if they do not have at least SPF 15, they should not be used by themselves.