Do You Need Sun Protection for Skin of Color?

Are people of color exempt from the ill effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays? It’s a common assumption — but it’s false. If you have darker skin, you need sun protection just as much as anyone else does.

UV Rays

An appropriate amount of exposure to the sun’s UV rays can provide you with your daily dose of vitamin D. Your body needs it to function and develop correctly. 

But an overdose of UV rays can be harmful. ‌ Sunburns and other types of skin damage are caused by the UV radiation that comes from the sun as well as from artificial sources such as tanning beds or certain lights and lasers.   

UV rays can’t distinguish between skin colors. No matter what your skin tone is, you’re susceptible to sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer, and other health issues as a result of too much exposure.  

Sun Protection for Skin of Color

You may hear that dark-skinned individuals are less susceptible to harmful UV rays because they produce more melanin than light-skinned people do. Melanin, a chemical that darkens skin color, comprises an entire group of natural pigments contained in your skin’s outermost layer. Light-skinned people, whose skin contains less melanin, are at greater risk for sun damage.  

But melanin can only provide a natural sun protection factor (SPF) of up to 13. And it enables darker-skinned people to absorb more than twice as many UV rays than people with fairer skin do. So darker skin may provide a scant element of natural protection from the sun, but it doesn’t replace the need for sunscreen.  ‌  

Health professionals recommend that everyone use sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30, regardless of your skin color. That’s because sunscreen protects your skin from more than just sunburns. ‌

Even if you’ve never had a sunburn — or maybe you have but you didn’t notice — frequent sun exposure is still dangerous. It can cause sun spots, wrinkles, and skin cancer, among other conditions.    

In fact, studies show that people with dark skin are more likely to die from skin cancer than those with light skin. Because they believe that their deeper skin tones don’t need sunscreen, darker-skinned people are less likely to take preventive measures and perform routine checks for skin cancer. So when skin cancer or other dangers are found, they’re usually in an advanced stage that’s difficult to defeat.  

But you stand a better chance of defeating these conditions with frequent sunscreen use. 

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How Does Sunscreen Work?

Sunscreen absorbs harmful UV rays. Sunscreens have varying SPFs that protect against corresponding radiation intensities. 

The SPF is a measure that reflects how much UV radiation is needed to sunburn skin that is protected by sunscreen or other preventive measures. As the SPF goes up, so does protection against sunburn.

So basically, if you go outside without sunscreen and you sunburn after 10 minutes, putting on SPF 15 sunscreen will delay a sunburn by 100 minutes. But it’s not an exact science. Other factors play into sun protection, including‌:

  • Time of day when skin is exposed
  • Geographic location
  • Skin type
  • Amount of sunscreen used
  • Frequency of reapplication
  • Medications or creams that increase skin sensitivity

To play it safe, choose a higher SPF. If you’re swimming or sweating while you’re out in the sun, your sunscreen will wear off and be less effective than it’s supposed to be. Using sunscreen with a high SPF will decrease your risk for sun-related health concerns.

Sunscreen Application Tips for Skin of Color

Sunscreen only works for your skin if you apply it correctly. Remember to cover spots such as your ankles and wrists, the backs of your elbows and knees, your ears, and your scalp. 

Apply it generously at least 30 minutes before you go outside, to allow the SPF to be effective when you need it. Reapply it every few hours or after getting wet, swimming, or towel-drying your body. Don’t forget to use a lip balm that has an SPF as well.

Many sunscreens leave a thick, white sheen on dark skin. Some may leave you looking ashy or with a gray tint on your skin. ‌

Don’t be discouraged. Find sunscreen that has been created specifically for darker skin. If that’s not available, look for one that is lightweight and will be quickly absorbed into the skin‌.  

There’s no downside to using sunscreen. No matter how dark or light your skin tone is, you need its natural protection against UV rays.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 11, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital: “True or False: Dark-skinned People Don’t Need Sunscreen.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “UV Radiation.”

Cleveland Clinic: “What Dark-Skinned People Need to Know About Skin Cancer.”

Ochsner Health: “Sunscreen Tips For People With Skin Of Color.”

Skin of Color Society: “Sun Protection for Skin of Color.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Sun Protection Factor (SPF).” 

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