Sunscreen. Who needs it anyway?: Sun safety for people of color

(“Splash” by The Eye of Vox, Flickr, Creative Commons)
(“Splash” by The Eye of Vox, Flickr, Creative Commons)

The summer is finally upon us. The closer we get to the end of the summer, the hotter it feels outside. No longer is it in-between jacket weather; it is undeniably sunny summer weather. During this time of year, it is very common to hear phrases like, “Don’t forget your sunscreen.” But what does that sentence mean for a person of color? Growing up as a Black woman, this bit of sun advice was almost always met with skepticism and regarded as sometimes irrelevant due to my beliefs about sun safety and the Black community.

During this time of year it is also common to hear statements like “You’ll be okay” if you don’t remember your sunscreen, or there simply isn’t even a conversation about buying or using sunscreen. Statements like the former or lack thereof are partially due to the myths surrounding this topic, such as the myth that people of color don’t need to use sunscreen or that people of color don’t get sunburned. Actually, the amount of melanin or dark pigmentation in skin serves as an inherent protector against the sun’s rays. However, instead of turning red, darker skinned people tend to turn darker brown.

Below are some fast facts about sun safety and people of color:

                                                                 Risk of Skin Cancer

• African American skin has been found to have an inherent sun protective factor (SPF) of about 13.4 in comparison to 3.4 in white skin. This factor contributes to the fact that skin cancer is diagnosed less often in African Americans, as well as in Asians and Latinos, than in whites. However, when skin cancer is diagnosed in people of color it tends to be within the later stages of skin cancer, which makes mortality rates disproportionately higher.

• Melanoma is often found in places of the skin that are less often exposed and have less pigmentation. For African Americans, Asians, Filipinos, Indonesians, and native Hawaiians, 60-75 percent of tumors related to melanoma have been found on the palms, soles, mucous membranes and nail regions.

Risk factors in minorities for melanoma other than the sun include: burn scars, albinism, trauma, preexisting moles, radiation therapy and immunosuppression.

                                                             SPF Recommendations

• The FDA has suggested that brands that promise very high SPF levels such as 50+ have been found to be misleading and the high level of SPF is not necessary.

Vitamin A in sunscreen can lead to development of tumors when in the sun. Instead, look for sunscreens that contain zinc, titanium dioxide, avobenzone or Mexoryl S.

• Choosing an SPF level can be difficult. Darker skin does not require the highest level of SPF. Regardless of skin tone, an SPF of 15 at minimum is suggested, reapplying every 2 hours when in direct sun.

• Be sure to check out the 2015 Guide to Sunscreens for info about different sunscreen brands and sunscreen recommendations for people of color.

So before basking in the sun’s glory, be sure to grab your sunscreen — regardless of your skin tone!

Sunscreen (Complete with a Jersey Shore clip)

Yup, it’s that time of year. School is almost out, the weather is turning warmer, and the beaches are sounding oh so nice. The moment is rapidly approaching when I will also receive my first sunburn of the new year. I never expect to get sunburned, but it always happens. I usually receive my first burn from playing sports longer than expected during the middle of the day without applying sunscreen. To be honest, sunscreen is one of the last things on my mind on a beautiful Spring day. I suppose my thinking is that because I am not putting on a skimpy swim suit and lying out on hot sand for hours on end, I do not need to protect myself. Additionally, since I become embarrassingly pale during the winter I don’t want anything to get in the way of my slightly darker summer complexion, even if that means suffering through a few minor burns.

Unfortunately, this darker completion can come at a costly price. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer the US. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer each year. In addition to the possibility of cancer, excessive unprotected sun exposure will age your skin much faster than normal. Don’t believe me? Hear it from the sun tanning pros on the Jersey Shore:

Tips from the CDC and Dave:

Use sunscreen. Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF) number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a sunscreen with at least SPF 15.

“But Dave, SPF 15 doesn’t allow me to get tan enough.”

Dave: “We weren’t made to go 20 shades darker than our normal complexion.”

Reapplication. Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours, and after you swim or do things that make you sweat.

“But Dave, mine says it’s water-proof.”

Dave: “They lie. Also, keep bottles in your car, sports, bag, purse, etc. so you always have it accessible.”

Expiration date. Check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.

“Sunscreen can expire?!?!”

Dave: “That’s right, but if you are using the recommended 2 tablespoons for your body per application you should never come close to the expiration date.”

Cosmetics. Some make-up and lip balms contain some of the same chemicals used in sunscreens. If they do not have at least SPF 15, don’t use them by themselves.

“But, I paid $45 dollars for this base!”

Dave: “Sorry.”

Drink water. That’s right, not only will you reduce the risk of heatstroke, but your skin will stay more hydrated and offer more protection against sun damage.

“Wow, thanks Dave.”

Dave: “No problem.”

Tips were adapted from: