Wear Sunscreen – A Black Girl PSA
I used to think that black people didn’t need sunscreen. In addition to what I’d always been told, this notion was supported when I learned that the high amounts of melanin in dark skin protects it from the sun. Hooray! So I lived like a carefree black girl and basked in the sun without a care. Besides, I didn’t get sunburns like my Caucasian friends so there must’ve been no damage being done, right? Wrong. Although it’s rare, black people can develop skin cancer. Aside from the threat of cancer in the long-term, excess sun exposure can also be detrimental to the appearance of dark skin in the here-and-now.
So what exactly is so harmful about sun exposure? Here comes the nerdy part. The sun emits radiation; the type of radiation we are concerned with are ultraviolet rays. By the way, UV=ultraviolet. Simply put, UV-A rays are responsible for Aging and UV-B rays are responsible for sunBurns which lead to DNA damage and possibly cancer.
Melanin is a pigment present in all skin in varying amounts. It protects skin by absorbing the sun’s rays thereby preventing them from damaging the DNA in your skin cells. Generally, the darker your skin, the more melanin you have. Melanin is sun-protective and is also created in response to sun exposure (this is the darkening that happens when people get a tan).
So all this information is good but what does it have to do with you? Most of us have heard the phrase “Black don’t crack”, referring to the graceful way black people tend to age. After considering the protective effects of melanin and lifestyle factors, genetics are also largely responsible for this phenomenon. Even if it’s in your genes to age gracefully, there are things you can do to help yourself along. Remember, UV-A rays contribute to skin aging so wearing sunscreen daily is one of the best things you can do to slow the signs of aging. I don’t know about you but I want to keep people guessing my age well into my 70s.
Although we tend to age well, many black people (myself included) have dark spots or post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) as the result of injury to the skin causing an overproduction of melanin. Skin injury may be due to acne, rash, infection, or hormonal causes. Basically, anything that threatens the skin’s integrity can cause melanin overproduction. Sun exposure only serves to further darken theses areas, making the spots more obvious. Many of the treatments for PIH make the skin even more sensitive to the sun, making sunscreen essential for the treatment of dark marks. We will discuss treatments for PIH in a future post.
As with all skin care, ingredients matter. Sun protection is no different. Sunscreen assists your melanin by either reflecting the sun’s rays or absorbing them. Physical sunscreens (eg. zinc oxide, titanium dioxide) reflect the rays while chemical sunscreens (eg. octinoxate, homosalate, octylcrylene, avobenzene) absorb the rays. Many modern sunscreens use a combination of both physical and chemical UV filters. When choosing a sunscreen, ensure it has broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. Choose a higher SPF if you’ll be in the sun for several hours. The higher the SPF, the longer you can go before you have to reapply it. A note on physical sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to leave a white tint/cast behind when applied so maybe save the pure physical sunscreens for your body and use chemical or mixed sunscreens to protect your face. No one wants to leave the house looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost!
The myth that dark-skinned people don’t need to wear sunscreen is one of the biggest lies in the beauty world so I’m happy to lend my voice to dispel it. Let this be my public service announcement as summer beckons us all outside. Black people across the land, wear sunscreen!