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Skin cancer is less common in dark-skinned people but is still a risk; experts recommend an SPF factor 30 sunscreen for darker complexions and SPF 50 for lighter- skinned people. Photo: Shutterstock

Why sunscreen for black and brown-skinned people is vital, and which formulas work best

  • It is a common fallacy that dark-skinned people don’t tan or sunburn, and don’t need sunscreen; dermatologists recommend SPF factor 30 lotions for darker skins
  • Skin doctors say sunscreen not only protects the skin but has anti-ageing properties and helps with dark spots and skin discolouration known as melasma

It’s a common belief among black and brown community members: they don’t need to wear sunscreen and they don’t get sunburned.

Dr Mona Gohara, a dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut in the United States and associate clinical professor at Yale University’s School of Medicine, says the beliefs go back to the “old school mentality” that sunscreen just protects against sunburn and skin cancer, and that black and brown people can’t burn, tan or get skin cancer.

“None of those are true,” she says. “We can burn. We can tan, and we can get skin cancer.” She and other dermatologists are encouraging those with darker complexions to make wearing sunscreen routine.

Gohara says many people of colour don’t realise the power of sunscreen. It protects the skin from excessive exposure to sunlight, yes, but it also helps with anti-ageing, acne scars and dark spots, she says.
Dermatologists recommend people with darker complexions use SPF factor 30 sunscreen. Photo: Shutterstock

Sunscreen also protects against visible or blue light, Gohara says. Such light comes from devices like computer screens, mobile phones and light bulbs.

This visible light, she says, can lead to a condition called melasma, a blotchy, brownish discolouration on the face and a condition more common in black and brown people because they make more melanin – pigmentation that gives the skin its brown colour.

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“Melasma is a reaction that happens when melanin interacts with some type of light,” Gohara says. “The more melanin you have, the more likely you are to get it.”

Melasma mostly occurs on the cheeks, says Dr Henry Lim, senior vice-president for academic affairs at the Henry Ford Health System in the US state of Michigan. Some people develop it around their eyes.

But melasma isn’t the only condition people of colour are at risk for if they don’t use sunscreen. There’s also post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or discolouration that comes after breakouts, says Gohara.

I actually keep my sunscreen right next to my toothbrush in the morning. It reminds me to apply it.
Dr Mona Gohara, Yale University School of Medicine

“(Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) is much more likely to happen in us because our melanin kicks into overdrive,” Gohara says. “If we don’t wear sunscreen, we can be left with hyperpigmentation and brown marks that can last for a long time.”

Melanin is a pigment produced in the upper layer of skin called the epidermis. In addition to giving skin its brown colour, it also protects against ultraviolet light.

“A medium-brown person probably has a God-given melanin sun protection factor of about 13 versus a white person, (who) would have about a three,” Gohara says.

Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen is recommended for darker skin.

Best practices for people with melanated skin

Lim from the Henry Ford Health System says darker-skinned people don’t get sunburned as easily as fair-skinned individuals, so their sunscreen doesn’t need to have such a high sun protection factor (SPF) number. He recommends SPF 30 for people with darker complexions and SPF 50 for people with lighter skin tones.

Lim said the natural skin pigmentation – melanin – in dark-skinned people provides “significant protection against skin cancer”, so cases of skin cancer are much lower in dark-skinned people.

But because dark-skinned people experience pigmentary changes more often than fair-skinned people, industry experts recommend sunscreen with good broad- spectrum protection.

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Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against ultraviolet light and decreases the chances of “pigmentary alteration”, says Lim. Most importantly, he says, good skincare is a package deal and sunscreen is just one part of it. Those heading out into the sun should wear not only sunscreen, but wide-brimmed hats, protective clothing and sunglasses.

Application is also important, according to Gohara. While some brands offer moisturisers with sunscreen in them already, she suggests that folks first apply a regular moisturiser then put sunscreen on top of it, and they should do it every day.

“I actually keep my sunscreen right next to my toothbrush in the morning,” she says. “It reminds me to apply it.”

Regardless of whether they are indoors or outdoors, people should use a coin-sized amount of sunscreen for adequate protection on their faces. “When you’re outside, reapplication every couple hours or after swimming or sweating is what we recommend,” she says.

Whereas previous sunscreens have mostly been chalky, white and not ideal for people of colour, the industry has “done a good job at recognising the long overdue need that everybody should be wearing sunscreen and creating better tones”, Gohara says.

Black Girl Sunscreen is a moisturising 30 SPF sunscreen. Photo: Instagram

One brand she recommends is EltaMD because some of its products contain niacinamide, an active ingredient to bring down acne and inflammation.

Dr Janiene Luke, residency programme director at the Loma Linda University Department of Dermatology in California, says there are different types of sunscreens people of colour can choose from. Two of the main types of sunscreen are chemical sunscreens and physical (mineral) sunscreens.

Physical or mineral sunscreen acts like a shield, deflecting or scattering ultraviolet rays, Luke says. Once the mineral sunscreen is applied, it sits on the surface of the skin.

“Chemical sunscreens act like a sponge, absorbing UV rays and converting them to heat which is then released from the skin,” Luke says. She uses both types and offers recommendations for those looking for protection from the sun, including products such as Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 30 and Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen.

“We are susceptible to the effects of the sun,” Luke says. “We can get skin cancer, and sometimes it’s in areas that really aren’t sun-exposed. It’s definitely something that we should keep on our radar.”