Sunscreen for darker skin tones: What’s fact and what’s fiction?16/12/2018
Christmas is upon us and this means a summer of cricket, BBQs and beach-time. But swapping your beanie for your broad-brimmed hat is not the only summer update that should be on your agenda. Sunscreen is a vital component of sun protection but many people with darker skin tones (skin of colour) think their natural skin colour is enough to protect them from the harsh effects of ultra-violet light. I too was under this assumption in my younger years.
My Indian heritage blessed me with lots of melanin so I grew up thinking that I would never get burned or have to worry about skin cancer. I was often told that I was lucky I didn’t have to bother with sunscreen. But this could not be further from the truth. Those with darker skin tones still need sunscreen. And here are the reasons why.
1. People with skin of colour do burn
Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour and people with skin of colour do have ‘in built sunscreen.’ Those with African skin types for example, have an intrinsic sun-protection factor (SPF) of 13.4 while those with white skin have an SPF of about 3.
SPF is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent ultra-violet light (UV) B from damaging the skin. So, if it takes 20 minutes for unprotected skin to start burning, an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents burning 15 times longer — about five hours. So, people with skin of colour do burn, it just takes a longer time for this to happen. And what makes things more difficult is that the burn is not easily seen because it is hard to see red in darker skin types.
2. People with skin of colour are prone to pigmentation
UV-B, UV-A and visible light exposure contribute to brown spots and blemishes (pigmentation) in the skin of colour population. Pigmentation is one of the most common reasons for those with skin of colour to see a dermatologist. And it is easy to understand why. Research has shown that pigmentation instantly makes a person look older and can cause depression and anxiety.
Middle-aged Indian woman with melasma on her face
Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF factor (50+ or more) and “high UVA protection” (should be marked on the bottle) and one that can also block visible light is the key to preventing pigmentation or stopping it from worsening over time. Sunscreens that have in-built tint or iron-oxide block visible light. Make-up can also provide visible light protection.
3. Sunscreen is one of the best anti-aging methods for all skin types
Ultra-violet light, visible light and infra-red light contribute to skin aging. Wrinkles, sagging, age spots, freckles and visible blood vessels are all caused at least in part, by UV exposure. UV also causes accelerated collagen breakdown in the skin and weakens the cell’s immune responses. So, anyone who wants to be ‘forever young’ should make sunscreen part of their daily routine.
4. People with skin of colour do get skin cancer
Most of the research about skin cancer in those with skin of colour comes from the United States of America. US studies have shown that while skin cancer is less common in those with skin of colour, it is often more advanced and more aggressive by the time it is diagnosed. This means it is more difficult to treat and results in more deaths. In addition, skin cancers in darker skin types are seen in unusual places. Melanomas, for example, are more often seen on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and nails.
As our population becomes more mixed, we will see more people with medium skin tones developing skin cancer. I have seen one patient of Indian descent with melanoma this year. Uncommon? Yes. Unheard of? No. Good reason to get your sunscreen on? I think so.
Handy hints for those with skin of colour:
- Avoid the ‘white face’ – avoid that dreaded white look that some sunscreens cause when applied to darker skin types by choosing a micro-ionised formula. These formulas blend in and disappear into the skin. Propaira, La Roche Posay with tint for sensitive eyes and Cetaphil Dermacontrol are some examples of brands that blend in well in most people with skin of colour.
- Choose a sunscreen that blocks visible light – iron oxide blocks visible light and is contained in a few new formulas in Australia. You could also apply foundation over the sunscreen to provide some level of visible light protection.
- Go with a gel or lotion formula that doesn’t clog pores if you are prone to acne and blackheads. Cetaphil and Neutrogena have great formulas for acne-prone skin
- Sunscreen doesn’t last all day! Don’t expect sunscreen to last more than a few hours. Read the instructions so you know when you need to re-apply. Remember, a lot of damage occurs even before the skin starts to get visibly red or sore.
- Forget looking at the weather forecast to figure out if you need sunscreen. Sunscreen should be applied when the UV index is 3 or above. As I write this blog, the sun is hiding, it’s cool enough to wear a light jacket but the UV index is 11 (extreme)! Don’t be caught out - check out the free UV app by SunSmart.
Sunscreen definitely needs to be a part of the sun-protection routine for people with skin of colour (Asian, Indian, Sri-Lankan, Middle Eastern, southern Mediterranean, Indigenous Australian and Pacific Islander heritage). Make sunscreen part of your routine this summer – your skin health and youthfulness depends on it.
If you are interested in optimising your skin care regimen to increase youthfulness and luminosity and prevent skin cancer and pigmentation, book a free initial consultation with our dermal clinician today.