Summer is finally here! If you are based in the UK, you know we’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. But with summer comes a myriad of questions and opinions about sunscreen, particularly within the African-Caribbean community, with many unsure about the need, use or benefits of sunscreen. I’m sure we’ve heard (or said) statements like “I’m Black, so I don’t need sunscreen” or “My Melanin protects me, so I’m good”. In this post, I’ll explore the accuracy of these statements and hopefully provide more clarity on this. Here we go!
“Why is Sunscreen important and what does it actually do?”
Sunscreen, also referred to as sunblock, is a product that protects the skin against the sun’s harmful rays. There are two types of rays we need protection from: Ultraviolet A (UVA) & Ultraviolet B (UVB). According to the American Chemical Society, UVB can damage the DNA in the outer layer of the skin, called the epidermis and cause sunburn. UVA has a longer wavelength and can penetrate to the middle layers of the skin, called the dermis. This can result in tanning and premature aging of the skin, as well as DNA damage that may result in skin cancer. If the sunscreen is a broad-spectrum formula, it shields the skin against both harmful UVA & UVB rays which is also helpful in preventing hyperpigmentation. The use of sunscreen is therefore recommended.
Sunscreens can work in 2 ways, depending on the type of ingredients they consist of. Sunscreens containing chemical-based ingredients, such as homosalate, sink into the outer layers of the skin and absorb the UV radiation before it can cause damage to the skin cells. Mineral (or physical) ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide, on the other hand, work by creating a barrier on the surface of the skin that reflects UV rays off the skin. Some sunscreens contain both chemical and mineral ingredients.
“I’m Black, so I don’t need sunscreen, right?”
There have been suggestions that the use of sunscreen is not as vital in individuals with naturally dark skin tones. Dr Adewole Adamson, a dermatologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas, suggests that the development of skin cancer in dark-skinned people is unrelated to sun exposure. This is because skin cancers common to dark-skinned individuals usually occur in areas that are not largely exposed to the sun, such as the palms of the hand or the sole of the feet. He states that:
“If UV exposure was such a problem for skin cancer, you’d see a massive epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. They don’t have the same level of sunscreen promotion that they do here (United States). And you hear nothing about it because there probably is no association”.
While Dr Adamson’s suggestions are insightful, more research is needed to confirm this. There isn't a lot of research focusing on the development of skin cancer in dark-skinned individuals which according to an article by New York Times, “raises questions about who is being considered when organizations make these public health recommendations (about the use of sunscreen).”
Dr Dawn Queen, a dermatologist at Columbia University, disagrees with the suggestion that individuals with darker skin tones do not need to wear sunscreen. She stated in a Columbia University article that “while it is true that they will burn less frequently than their lighter counterparts due to increased protective melanin in the skin, melanin is not impervious to all UV rays. Burns can and do occur. Burns significantly increase the risk for skin cancers, and protecting the skin from UV rays is our best tool to prevent them before they happen."
It is also important to note that while studies have shown that Black individuals are less likely to develop skin cancer due to the protective effects of melanin, the survival rates are worse in Black individuals largely because it is not quickly detected. It is therefore highly advisable for naturally dark-skinned individuals to remain cautious and periodically examine their skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, here are things to look out for:
Dark spot, growth, or darker patch of skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way
Sore that won’t heal — or heals and returns
Sore that has a hard time healing, especially if the sore appears in a scar or on skin that was injured in the past
Patch of skin that feels rough and dry
Dark line underneath or around a fingernail or toenail
It also remains advisable for individuals with darker skin tones to use sunscreen. Dr Gufey, an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Virginia (UVA), explains it this way in a UVA Health article:
"If the skin's natural melanin pigment is comparable to the body’s umbrella, wearing sunscreen can be likened to using that umbrella and wearing a raincoat. No matter how good the umbrella, you’ll end up less wet if you also wear a raincoat.”
Aside from skin cancer prevention, sunscreen remains useful for protection against other types of damage caused by UV rays, for example, hyperpigmentation and premature skin ageing (i.e.: the development of wrinkles and changes to skin texture).
Please note that to reap the full protective effects of sunscreen, you must use it as directed. Sunscreen should also be used alongside other protective measures, such as wearing a hat and minimizing direct & prolonged exposure to the sun.
“I hear you girl, sunscreen is important. But none of them suits my skin tone.”
We’ve got you! Our next blog post will be focusing on the best sunscreen for darker skin tones, so look out for that. In the meantime, check out our previous blog post on this topic, our podcast episode on Black Skin Health and FDA guidelines on the use of sunscreen, this includes how much to apply, tips for storage, the use of sunscreen in children etc.
Until next time!
By Success Fabusoro (Blog Writer)