One of the biggest sun myths is that darker skin tones don’t need protection against the sun.
It’s true that darker-skinned people are less likely to experience sunburn, but the risk is still there. Plus, long-term exposure still increases the risk of skin cancer, regardless of skin tone.
Here’s everything you need to know about the effects of the sun on darker skin.
People with darker skin are less likely to experience sunburn thanks to a little thing called melanin. It’s a skin pigment produced by skin cells called melanocytes. Its aim is to block the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Darker skin tones have more melanin than lighter ones, meaning they’re better protected from the sun. But melanin isn’t immune to all UV rays, so there’s still some risk.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Here’s a look at the percentage of people from different backgrounds who experienced at least one sunburn in the last year, according to the
- almost 66 percent of white women and just over 65 percent of white men
- just over 38 percent of Hispanic women and 32 percent of Hispanic men
- about 13 percent of black women and 9 percent of men
But there’s a ton of variation in skin tone, even within these groups. To better understand your sunburn risk, it’s helpful to know where you fall on the Fitzpatrick scale.
Developed in 1975, dermatologists use the Fitzpatrick scale to determine how a person’s skin will react to sun exposure.
The Fitzpatrick scale
According to the scale, all skin tones fall into one of six categories:
- Type 1: ivory skin that always freckles and burns, never tans
- Type 2: fair or pale skin that burns and peels often, tans minimally
- Type 3: fair to beige skin that occasionally burns, sometimes tans
- Type 4: light brown or olive skin that rarely burns, tans easily
- Type 5: brown skin that rarely burns, tans easily and darkly
- Type 6: dark brown or black skin that rarely burns, always tans
Types 1 through 3 have the greatest sunburn risk. While types 4 through 6 have a lower risk, they can still occasionally burn.
Sunburn appears differently in lighter and darker skin tones. For lighter-skinned people, it will typically look red and feel hot, painful, or both. The burned skin may also feel tight.
But darker-skinned people may not notice any redness. Still, they’ll have all the other symptoms, such as heat, sensitivity, and itchiness. After a few days, any skin tone may also experience peeling.
Sunburn usually gets better on its own within a week. Severe cases can lead to dangerous conditions like heat stroke.
See a healthcare provider or contact emergency services if your sunburn comes with any of the following:
- a high temperature
- blistering or swollen skin
- feelings of tiredness, dizziness, or nausea
- muscle cramps
Darker-skinned people can get skin cancer, though the risk is lower than it is for white people.
In fact, a
But skin cancer can result in more dangerous consequences for darker skin tones. That same
That’s because they’re more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage for a variety of reasons, including medical bias.
It’s not just about sun exposure
A number of things outside of sun exposure affect your skin cancer risk, including:
- family history
- tanning bed use
- number of large moles
- UV light treatments for psoriasis and eczema
- conditions associated with the HPV virus
- conditions that weaken your immune system
Regularly taking a look at your skin can go a long way when it comes to identifying skin cancer early.
Remember, sun isn’t the only skin cancer culprit. You can develop skin cancer in areas of your body that aren’t typically exposed to sunlight.
You’ve probably heard about these common signs:
- large, changing, or asymmetrical moles
- sores or bumps that bleed, ooze, or curst
- unusual-looking skin patches that don’t heal
All of the above are indeed things to look out for on visible parts of the body. But people with darker skin are more susceptible to a type of cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM). It presents itself in spots on slightly hidden places, such as:
- the hands
- soles of the feet
- under the nails
Darker-skinned people are also encouraged to look in their mouth for abnormalities as well as elsewhere for the following:
- dark spots, growths, or patches that appear to be changing
- patches that feel rough and dry
- dark lines underneath or around fingernails and toenails
Give your skin a check once a month. Follow up with a dermatologist at least once a year to stay on top of things.
Sufficiently protecting your skin from the sun’s rays is key in preventing sunburn.
Here are the basics to follow:
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 for the best protection. If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time in the sun, apply 30 minutes before you step outside.
An ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) is required to adequately cover an adult’s face and body. Don’t forget areas like the ears, lips, and eyelids.
Remember to reapply
Slathering yourself in sunscreen is great, but the effects won’t last long if you don’t do it all over again.
It’s recommended to reapply sunscreen every two hours. If you’ve been swimming or sweating, you’ll need to reapply before this time.
Stay in the shade during peak times
Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is when the sun is strongest. Either limit your exposure or cover up during this period.
Ensure you have the right accessories
A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UV light are key. You can also consider buying sun-protective clothing.
No matter the color of your skin is, it’s vital to protect it from the sun. The chances of both skin cancer and sunburn may be lower in darker-skinned people, but there’s still a risk of getting either.
Keeping you and your skin safe is much easier with a little knowledge. Remembering how to shield your skin from UV rays is an important step. But so is knowing how to identify signs of burning and potentially cancerous abnormalities.
And if you’re ever concerned about your skin, don’t hesitate to book an appointment with your healthcare provider.