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Yes, Black People DO Get Sunburn

It’s almost officially summer—time to be adorned in your flyest shades, you stroll through street fairs, picnic in the parks, and bath on beaches.  But did you remember to slather your skin with sunscreen?  ‘Oh no’ some of us will retort, ‘I’m fine. You know black don’t crack’ or as Kanye puts it ‘I’m way too black to burn from sunrays’.  Two assumptions we as Blacks people make that put us in harm’s way when exposed to the sun.

Yes, people of African descent are fortunate to have less visible signs of aging such as wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots as compared to Whites.  This is due to the high amount of melanin produced by our skin.  Melanin gives color to our skin, eyes, and hair.  The more melanin you have, the darker your skin.  People of African descent can have a natural sun protection factor (SPF) of up to 13 as compared to 3-4 for Whites.   This does protect us from ultraviolet (UV) sunrays, thereby decreasing our risk for skin cancer and aging early.   However, it does not provide complete protection from either.

When exposed to the sun, our bodies actually produce more melanin and our skin darkens or what we typically call ‘getting a tan’.  Although we may not sunburn as quickly, anyone regardless of skin color can sunburn.  Anyone.   Multiple sunburns over a lifetime increase your risk for skin damage such as dark marks and uneven skin tone. 

What about skin cancer? Whites have higher skin cancer rates by far.  However, Blacks can get skin cancer as well, and these cancers represent 1-2% of all cancers.   There are many of us, including some in the medical establishment, that think we are protected and not at risk.   It is this belief that often leads to a diagnosis late in the disease process at which time the cancer may have spread and is more likely to be fatal.   

Basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma are the most common types of skin cancers.   Even though, our risk is lower than Whites for all of these cancers, we have significantly higher death rates from melanomas.  Probably the most notable Icon was Bob Marley who died at age 36 from melanoma that was initially dismissed as a soccer injury to his toenail.  Most skin cancers if caught on time are curable. 

There is one caveat though to sun exposure.  Sun is the key ingredient for the only vitamin that we can make ourselves-vitamin D.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least 31% of Blacks are vitamin D deficient.  Low levels of vitamin D are linked to lung disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, depression, cancers, and diabetes to name a few.  Research is finding that our sunlight needs are possibly not being met since we use sunscreen and are indoors more often.

So what to do? Here are some tips on how to best protect you and engage with the sun:

· Be sensible about your sun exposure. According to the National Institutes of Health, Vitamin D experts recommend 5-30 minutes of sun exposure 2-3 times per week without sunscreen to help meet our daily Vitamin D requirement.  You can also eat foods rich in Vitamin D or take supplements after speaking with your physician. Otherwise, limit the amount of time spent in direct sun, especially in the middle of the day between 10am -2pm.

· Wear sunglasses with 100% block of UVB and UVA and hat with a brim.

· Do regular skin checks (make sure your physician does too!)  looking for changes in moles or ulcers.

· According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants should be kept out of direct sunlight and, if breastfed, provided with vitamin D supplements. 

What about sunscreen? 

· Use it daily throughout the year.  Choose facial moisturizers with sunscreen as well.

· Look for a label that says ‘broad spectrum protection’.  This protects against both UVA and UVB.  UVA is linked to skin cancer and aging.  UVB is the main cause of sunburn. 

· Use a sunscreen of SPF of 15 -30 for adults and 30 for children.  Reapply every 2-3 hours for long periods of sun exposure.

· Avoid using sprays, especially for children; there is concern about them getting into your lungs. 

· No use of sunscreens for infants less than 6 months of age.

· Do not use products with Vitamin A or retinol. They may increase sun sensitivity.

· Purchase fragrance-free products.

· Do not store sunscreen in hot car. 

You don’t have to shun the sun completely, however be sensible and consistent with your protection while enjoying all that summer has to offer.

Dr. Aletha Maybank is a Board Certified physician in both Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrAlethaMaybank.