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The Sunscreen-Melanin Myth

Behold! The beginning of summer is upon us! With sunny days, warm breezes and holidays booked, we decided to get very serious about the most essential item that should be the first thing in your suitcase, if not a part of your daily lifestyle: sunscreen.

Irene Lee (Healthline)

Aside from determining skin and hair colour, melanin also acts as a protective barrier for DNA against ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. These UV rays can split into UV-A and UV-B. UV-B radiation is typically responsible for sunburns (which can be easily avoided with appropriate sun protection). 90% of UV radiation, primarily UV-A, is the more dangerous type of radiation as it deeply penetrates the skin. UV-A exposure is responsible for premature ageing effects such as skin leathering, wrinkling and sagging. In fact, UV-A aggravates the carcinogenic effects of UV-B that can result in melanomas.

Melanomas are a type of skin cancer that develop due to melanocyte (melanin cells) damage which cause cells to grow uncontrollably, leading to a cancer mass. The majority of melanomas are due to sun exposure. Alarmingly, late-stage melanoma diagnoses are more prevalent in black patients with 52% of black patients receiving an initial diagnosis of advanced stage melanoma (compared to 16% of white melanoma patients) [1]. This could explain the estimated five-year melanoma survival rate in black people being much lower when compared to white people (black patients have a 65% chance of survival compared to a 91% survival rate for white patients) [2].

In addition to this, black people are more commonly affected by and susceptible to the most fatal form of melanoma called ‘Acral Lentiginous Melanoma’ (ALM), an aggressive skin cancer that affects the palms, soles and finger beds. This is because of melanin inconsistencies in these areas thus making black people more prone to this lethal cancer however, darker-skinned people generally tend to be more prone to ALM compared to white people.

Knowing this, we have to question why the sunscreen-melanin myth exists. The lingering belief that sunscreen is for lighter skin tones arises due to the abundance of protective melanin in black skin which has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 13.4. Black people are often discouraged from sunscreen due to the white cast it would leave when applied therefore implying it was more for lighter skin tones. Thankfully, there have been many improvements to these products to better suit darker skin tones and dissolve into the skin for more comfortable wear (products found to not have white casts on darker skin tones are linked below).

SPF refers to an ability to prevent UV damage so the higher a sunscreen's SPF, the more effective its prevention. The use of sunscreen reduces the chances of skin cancer by 50%, premature ageing and improves the appearance of skin conditions like hyperpigmentation and dark spots that are more common in those with darker skin. This is because UV rays make them more difficult to remove. Black people cannot simply rely on their 'inbuilt sunscreen' to protect them but need to aid their skin’s protective efforts.

How much SPF should I wear? The level of SPF used should depend on an individual’s lifestyle. People with more brief exposure to the sun and typically spend more time indoors could use a lower SPF like 15 which prevents 93% of UV ray penetration. People who spend more time outdoors and sweat more would need to use higher SPFs like 30 upwards.

Photo By: Rex Perry

When do I need to put on sunscreen? It is advised that people above the age of six months old should apply sunscreen every day even on overcast, cloudy days. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours (especially if one swims or sweats) because water washes sunscreen away and reflects UV rays, therefore, increasing risk of exposure and sunscreen dries off skin over time in the sun. Sun protection also includes avoiding direct sunlight for prolonged periods; this can be done by staying in the shade during the hottest periods like midday and wearing light clothing to cover skin.

Skin cancer happens to be a preventable disease with a high survival rate, especially when found in its early stages. As a community, let's take more responsibility for our health because black will crack if chipped at enough. Happy skin protecting!

More information about Sunscreen and Cancer Statistics:

Skin Cancer Types, Cancer Research UK

Facts and Figures, Skin Cancer

[1] Hu S, Soza-Vento RM, Parker DF, et al. Comparison of stage at diagnosis of melanoma among Hispanic, black, and white patients in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Arch Dermatol 2006; 142(6):704-8

[2] Cancer Facts and Figures 2019. American Cancer Society. Accessed January 14, 2019

By Lela Pea, Editor

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