Everyone needs sun protection DAILY because sun damage doesn’t discriminate. Sun protection is a must-have in any skincare regimen. Our black girl magic makes us invisible in many ways but this is definitely not one of them.
For starters, this is a genuine plea to abandon this misperception about not needing sunscreen. So to my beautiful black sistahs who haven’t hopped on the sunscreen bandwagon (the ONE bandwagon you actually should be on), this post is dedicated to you. Yes, you may have heard that melanin provide some natural sun protection. It’s true and proven by medical research; however, this protection is nearly not enough to shield us from getting sunburned, aging prematurely or worse, developing skin cancer from ultraviolet (UV) damage. You may not see the damage now, but rest assured that if you don’t practice sun-safe habits in your 20s, 30s and 40s, it will surely show on your skin down the line. So buckle in.. this is a bit of a long one, but it’s important to establish some of the basics.
what is UVA and UVB?
I love a bronzy summer glow, but never at the expense of damaging my skin. Unfortunately, many of us women of color neglect to use sunscreen regularly (whether its a daily facial sunscreen or body sunscreen for when we are outside for a long period of time). While we love the depth of your skin tone after basking in the sun on a beautiful summer day, but the reality is the darkening of your normal skin tone is the outcome of your skin naturally shielding against UV damage and attempting to prevent further damage. Let’s not forget the sun rays are relentless, especially with being in it for a long period time. So, let me break down the basics about the different UV rays we encounter daily.
- UVA rays have a longer wavelength and penetrates into the deeper layers of the skin. These are the rays that are responsible for a good amount of the damage associated with photo-aging, which occurs as a result of long-term sun exposure. Studies show these rays can cause damage to the skin cells on the top layer of skin; as a result can lead to certain types of skin cancers.
- UVB rays are the main culprit behind sunburn. They have a shorter wavelength than UVB and tends to damage the skin’s more superficial layers of the epidermis. UVB often leads to some of the other short-effects of sun exposure like free radical formation, skin pigmentation (aka sun spots) and photosensitivity.
are all sunscreens the same?
Ok first let’s start with the role of sunscreen– which is to protect your skin from the harmful effects of UVA and UVB radiation. Sunscreen is truly one of the secrets to preserving your beautiful healthy skin.
Now to answer the question– No, not all sunscreens are the same. In fact, there are two types of sunscreens.
Physical sunscreens: include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and they work by sitting on top of the skin and forming a barrier. This barrier deflects and scatters damaging UV rays, preventing them from being absorbed by the skin. Zinc oxide is known to offer excellent protection from the different UVA rays (UVA1 and UVA2) plus UBA rays. Physical sunscreens are preferred for those with sensitive sun as they are less likely to cause skin irritation than chemical sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens: works absorbing UV radiation, changing UV rays into heat then releasing that heat from the skin. The most common ingredients include oxybenzone, octyl salicylate, octisalate, and avobenzone.
what does SPF mean?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. Essentially it’s a measure for how well a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays. The number tell you how long it will take for UVB rays to redden skin when using a sunscreen, compared to how long skin would take to redden without the product. For example, if it takes 20 minutes for you to turn red after sun exposure, using an SPF 15 sunscreen should in theory allow you to tolerate the same exposure 15 times longer to turn red—so that’s 300 minutes vs 20 minutes. A little math… but pretty straightforward, right?
how much and how often?
Apparently most of us don’t apply enough. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends applying an amount that equals to one teaspoon to the face/neck area, one to each arm, two teaspoons to your turso area as well as your legs. For maximum benefit, AAD recommends applying the sunscreen at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapplied every 2 hours during high sun exposure.
what is considered sun-safe habits?
As such we long for that glorious tan, it’s actually not considered a sun-safe habit. This a bit of a hard one because it’s the ONE thing most of us love to do in summer. AAD recommendations are to avoid excessive sun exposure between 10 AM and 4 PM which is when the sun’s rays are the strongest (sorry to rain on your parade). As you probably guessed, wide brimmed hats and sunglasses are also recommended. I have no complaints about this one– after all, who doesn’t love a stylish wide-brimmed hat and funky sunglasses?
why do I need sunscreen in the winter months?
As I mentioned before, the sun rays are relentless. UVA rays are equally intense during all daylight hours throughout the year, and can penetrate clouds and glass. This means we still need sunscreen on cloudy days AND the times we know we’ll be driving during the day for a long period of time. UVB rays can burn and damage your skin all year-round. So to answer the question; yes, sunscreen is still very important during the winter months.
why is this particularly important to me as a woman of color?
For starters: hyperpigmentation and skin cancer
I recently came across an Instagram post asking women of color about their skin concerns, and the overwhelming response was hyperpigmentation or dark spots. If this is also one of your concerns, then this is another solid reason to hop on the daily-sunscreen-bandwagon because sun protection is essential to making those dark spots disappear. Regardless what led to the hyperpigmentation, sun exposure can surely worsen it, thereby make it harder to treat. Remember, when you expose a hyperpigmented area to UV light, the skin cells responds by producing more melanin at a cellular level (aka a level that not visible to the naked eyes) to protect you from skin damage.
Did I convince you yet? Ok…last point to make and probably the most important one.
Skin cancer. So yes, as people of color we are less likely to be diagnosed with skin cancers than our counterparts. However, here’s a flip side to that statement: even though we have a lower risk profile, when skin cancer does occur in people of color, it is often identified and diagnosed in the late stages of the disease. For instance, about 52% of African Americans are likely to be diagnosed with late-stage melanoma compared to 16% of whites. As a result, we have a worse prognosis of survival (likelihood of surviving) compared to whites. Here another some shocking statistic:
- Squamous cell carcinomas (a type of skin cancer that develops in the cells of the epidermis, or outer layer of the skin), which the most common in people of color, tends to be more aggressive and are associated with a 20-40% risk of spreading
Ok, so maybe this is a bit more than the basics but a little extra information, but knowledge is power. All of this to say, there are so many reasons why we as women of color should not be overlooking sun protection or daily sunscreen use. It can be as simple as using a daily moisturizer that also contains sunscreens– I cover a few options in another post.
I hope this information has helped you to better understand why adequate sun protection is important. It’s also important to make time to see a dermatologist regularly to address your skin care needs, assess your skin health, as well as conduct full-body skin examinations. You know how the saying goes, PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE.
The follow-up of this post will be recommendations on sunscreens for brown girls– you’ll have to come for the details on that.
In the mean time, the organizations below provide great educational resources on the importance of sun protection. I recommend you check them out if you haven’t before– KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
- Gallagher RP. Ultraviolet radiation. Chronic Dis Can. 2010;29 Suppl 1:51-68.
- Aghai ON et al. Skin cancer and photoprotection in people of color: a review and recommendations for physicians and the public. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014 Apr;70(4):748-62.
- Gloster HM, Neal K. Skin cancer in skin of color. J Amer Acad Dermatol 2006; 55:741-60.
- Hu S, Soza-Vento RM, Parker DF, Kirsner RS. Comparison of stage at diagnosis of melanoma among Hispanic, black, and white patients in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Arch Dermatol 2006; 142(6):704-708.
- American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/spot-skin-cancer/learn-about-skin-cancer/types-of-skin-cancer.