Does Melanin Protect Us From Sun Damage?

If you’ve been under the impression that brown skin is like a shield of armor protecting you against the dangerous UV rays of the sun, you’re not the only one. While the amount of melanin in brown skin provides more protection than Caucasian or light skin tones, it’s not 100%. Women of color need to follow sun safety practices to prevent sun damage. We are also susceptible to skin cancer, skin discolorations, and, yes, sometimes black does crack.

Sun Safety for Women of Color
Do Women of Color Need Sunscreen?

It also hasn’t helped that in the past several dermatologists, who had limited knowledge when it came to the skin of color, often recommended the use of sunscreen products with low SPFs (sun protection factors). One woman recalls that a doctor told her that because of her dark skin, she didn’t need to wear sunscreen at all.

Dr. Kavita Mariwalla of Mariwalla Dermatology prefers that her patients, including those with darker skin tones, use SPF 30. In fact, more dermatologists are recommending SPFs between 25-30.

Part of the reason is because the average consumer does not use enough sunscreen. If they remember to use sun protection products, the application of thin layers of sunscreen or missed areas of the body decreases the actual sun protection factor. The sad truth is, some don’t even bother to use sunscreen.

Is Your Sunscreen Really Protecting You?

If you’re one of those people, consider this your ouch-ouch moment. Save your skin with these sun safety tips for women of color:

Use a Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen

You should apply sunscreen if you expect to be in the sun for more than 20 minutes. Even if you don’t think you’ll be in the sun for long periods of time, daily routine activities such as running errands, walking to the store, or driving to the bank, can put your skin at risk for UV damage. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which will protect the skin from both UVB and UVA rays.

Make Sunscreen a Part of Your Daily Routine

Get used to regularly applying sunscreen just as you would a moisturizer. For normal, short-term exposure (and depending on your individual skin care needs), a moisturizer with SPF 15 will do. People often forget about sunlight that comes through an office and car windows, as well as the windows of your home. Wearing sunscreen on a regular basis will actually allow for some repair of damaged skin, according to the Melanoma Foundation.

How Much Do You Know About Sun Safety?

Application Tips

  • Apply sunscreen to dry skin 30 minutes before exposure to the sun, to provide adequate time to absorb into the skin. Apply to areas that will be exposed, paying attention to the face, ears, hands, and arms.
  • Apply liberally. The general guideline is one ounce (two tablespoons or a shot-glass full) to completely cover the body, but the amount to use will be determined by height and weight. Just be diligent in completely covering the body. If one bottle of sunscreen lasts you an entire summer, you are not using enough.
  • Reapply every two hours–more if you are in intense sunlight (the beach, ski slopes, etc), are swimming or sweating.
  • Waterproof/water-resistant sunscreens lose effectiveness after 80 minutes in water. Reapply before this time and if you have towel-dried.
  • Remember your lips. Use a lip balm of SPF 15 or higher.

Sun safety means more than just using sunscreen:

  • If your plans involve going to the beach or doing any outdoor activities, it should be before 11 AM or after 3PM when the sun is less intense.
  • It might sound unpleasant on hot, humid days, but if you are going to be in the blazing sun, such as during a nature hike or mountain climb, cover up. While in the past, it was advised that you wear light-colored clothing to deflect rays, light fabrics with loose weaves (such as loose weaved cotton or linen) provide less UV protection. Dark and bright colors, especially those that are tightly woven help reduce exposure. After all, people who live in the desert aren’t typically seen in shorts and tank tops! To help reduce the heat, wear lightweight, loose-fitting fabrics with fibers that have a tight weave so that less UV gets through.
  • Also try sun protective clothing manufactured with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor – a rating found in Australia which is now more frequently found in clothing in the States).
  • Launder clothes in detergents like Sun Guard which adds an SPF of 30 to fabric.
  • If you don’t want to use Sun Guard, you can wash cotton and cotton blends to shrink the spaces between the fibers.
  • Wear hats, visors, and UV-blocking sunglasses, or shield yourself under umbrellas or in the shade, especially on extremely hot days. Make sure that wide-brimmed hats are really protecting you from the sun. If you can see a pattern on your face from where the sun is shining through your straw hat, you’re not getting enough. The Wallaroo Hat Company designs hats with an ultraviolet protection factor of 50+ and block out 97.5% of UV rays.
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