You Wanted to Know: Darker Skin and the Sun

Happy African American Family On Beach

We all love the feel of some summer rays, but don’t let the sun blind you. No matter what color your skin is, broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 is a must.

Many people think that darker skin is immune to the sun’s damaging effects. This is one of the most dangerous misconceptions out there and could be one of the reasons that rates of skin cancer in some minority populations have been growing.

On Twitter, @RhondiK asked about how to protect her daughter’s darker skin from the sun:

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It is true that people with fairer complexions are more susceptible to sunburn and have higher rates of skin cancer than people with dark skin. That’s because darker skin contains more melanin, a pigment that gives skin its color and provides some protection against the sun’s harsh rays. But melanin alone isn’t enough to protect you from the UVA and UVB rays that cause cancer and age skin. Plus, because cells affected by UV rays produce more melanin, a tan is actually a sign of skin damage.

You don’t need to get a sunburn for the sun to hurt your skin. In fact, it could be deadly to assume you’re safe if you have darker skin. Melanoma, one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer, is more lethal for people with darker skin tones. Five years after diagnosis, only 74.1% of African-Americans with melanoma will still be alive, compared to 92% of Caucasians. This discrepancy might be due in part to delayed diagnosis of skin cancer in darker-skinned people. Think of the famous singer Bob Marley, who died at age 36 from melanoma that started on his toe. It was initially diagnosed as a soccer injury, and later metastasized to his brain. So make sure you regularly check yourself (and your kids) for strange-looking moles, even in unlikely places. Here’s a tool to help you get started.

It’s especially important to start sun protection young, since damage accumulates over time. Skin cancer arising from sun damage early in life can stay silent for years, only to rear its deadly face decades later. Parents are not doing enough to stop skin cancer before it starts – a 2011 study showed that only 60% of parents put sunscreen on their kids.

In addition to keeping you safe from cancer, sun protection will help keep you keep that youthful glow for longer. Over time, unprotected sun exposure can cause wrinkles, freckles, dark spots and other unsightly changes to your skin. People with darker tones are at particular risk for depigmentation, which is when patches of skin start to lose their coloring. So use broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and protective clothing to hold onto that young-looking, spotless skin. Doesn’t that sound better than a tan?

Learn more about the sun’s effects on darker skin here.