Dark skin — is sunscreen necessary?

Originally Published: March 12, 2010
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Dear Alice,

I am African-American, but my skin is not that dark. I was never told that I needed sunscreen and when I worked in a daycare I was told in a very delicate manner that only the paler children needed sunscreen. I've been out in the sun for extended periods of time and was wondering if sunscreen is necessary for someone of my complexion. If so, what strength?

Dear Reader,

As a general rule of thumb, everyone should wear sunscreen with at least SPF 15 on a daily basis, regardless of skin color. Although melanoma and other skin cancers are more common among fair-skinned folks, overexposure to the sun can be harmful for people of all skin tones. For the best protection, slick on some sunscreen anytime you head outside.

Contrary to popular belief, darker skinned people are not immune to sun damage. The sun's powerful rays penetrate all skin types, causing damage to skin cells that may eventually lead to skin cancer. The myth that only paler people need to use sunscreen may stem from the fact that melanoma and other skin cancers are more common among racial and ethnic groups with fair skin. For example, in 2005 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported about 25 cases of melanoma among every 100,000 white Americans, compared to less than five cases per 100,000 people in Hispanic or Asian groups. Melanoma rates were even lower for blacks and Native Americans.

The good news is that sunscreen products with sun protection factor (SPF) filter out the sun's harmful rays to protect against cancer and other skin damage. The higher the SPF, the more rays you avoid, and the healthier your skin stays. (For now, SPF 30 gives you the maximum protection.) The CDC recommends that everyone use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher every day, not matter what your skin color. Since excessive sun exposure also accelerates the skin's aging process, wearing sunscreen can prevent wrinkles, sagging skin, and age spots. As an added bonus, sunscreen protects against skin discoloration, particularly for people with darker skin tones.

To reduce your risk of skin cancer and other sun damage, follow these tips:

  • Choose your sunscreen wisely. Select a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays. Check the ingredient list for oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. Avoid products with added fragrance or dye that may aggravate your skin.
  • More is better! Slather on sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, and then reapply at least every two hours.
  • Accessorize. Don a wide-brimmed hat or darker cover-up clothing for extra sun protection.
  • Take cover. Seek out a shady spot or avoid being outside from 10am to 4pm when the sun's rays are strongest. 

Even if your skin doesn't burn or you have a darker complexion, sunscreen is still a good idea. As long as you lather on the SPF, you can still have fun in the sun!