As an African woman partly born and partly raised, the sun was never viewed as dangerous to me or friends and family living in Nigeria. Talk about the damaging effects of the sun via UVA or UVB rays was never discussed and almost never believed.

So what is UVA and UVB?

Ultraviolet A and Ultraviolet B

UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis, the skin’s thickest layer. Unprotected exposure can lead to premature skin aging and wrinkling (photoageing), and suppression of the immune system.

UVB rays will usually burn the superficial layers of your skin. It plays a key role in the development of skin cancer.

Numerous darker skinned people have even told me on several occasions that the idea of skin cancer caused by the effects of the sun on darker skin is a myth.

I humbly disagree.

Damaging UV rays can penetrate all skin types, regardless of ethnicity; so even people with dark skin need sunscreen.

What protection does darker skin have from the damaging effects of the sun?

Darker black skin has a natural SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of around 13.4, paler white skin is about 3.4 and everyone else fits along that spectrum. Whilst there is a definite difference between the highest and lowest levels, no one’s natural SPF is enough to keep the negative effects of sun damage (which includes, premature ageing, skin cancer, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, to name but a few) at bay.

So for me the impact of sun damage on skin is twofold:

A – Vanity related (ageing and hyper pigmentation) and

B – Health related (skin cancer)

Vanity Related

As most darker skinned people tend to believe black don’t crack, there seems to be less incentive to use sunscreen. However, dealing with hyper pigmentation issues, which I do, may steer some darker skinned people toward sun protection which is a part of the two stage process of preventing and curing this issue.

Because of the higher levels of melanin in darker skin the skin can go into overdrive whenever there is any trauma caused to it. In the case of sun damage that is exactly what happens, as the melanin cells become hyperactive in an attempt to protect your skin, which can then lead to dark patches, uneven skin tone and further darkening of previous scars.

Health Related

Admittedly skin cancer rates are significantly lower in people with darker skin, as the melanin in dark skin does provide some protection from the sun. However, low risk doesn’t mean no risk.

Even though skin cancer occurs less frequently in people with darker skin than in those with lighter skin, there is a higher mortality rate for darker skin people. This could in part be due to the fact that skin cancer isn’t often diagnosed in people of darker skin until a later stage when the disease is more advanced.

One reason people with darker skin aren’t diagnosed with skin cancer until the disease has advanced is that the early warning signs often go unnoticed. Any skin changes such as a new mole or one that grows or changes (this is very important to me as I have a few moles on my neck which I monitor vigilantly for any changes), a patch of skin that changes colour, or a dark spot under your nail is likely a sign to visit your GP to discuss the possibility of skin cancer.

Common sites for skin cancer to occur in darker skinned people include the bottoms of the feet, palms of the hands, and underneath finger and toenails (the singer Bob Marley died from melanoma that began under his toenail).

How does one protect darker skin from the damaging effects of the sun?

Using sunscreen is one of many ways to protect darker skin form the damaging effects of the sun. Sunscreens work by providing skin with protection from the sun and this is calculated as SPF (Sun Protection Factor). The numbers (most commonly 15, 30 and 50) relate to the amount of UVB protection the product offers. SPF15 blocks around 93% of UVB rays, SPF30 blocks around 97% and SPF50 blocks around 98%. The British Association of Dermatologists recommends using SPF30 as standard in addition to protective shade and clothing.

It’s important to bear in mind that using a high SPF doesn’t last any longer than using a lower SPF, the only difference between them is the percentage of UV rays that they’re blocking. No matter what factor cream you choose to use, it should be reapplied every two hours, and you should avoid being in the sun when it’s at its hottest (between 11am and 3pm).

There are two types of sunscreen; chemical and mineral.

What is the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreen 

Chemical sunscreens use a combination of two to six of these active carbon based ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. They absorb rays in a chemical reaction that dissipates the heat back off the skin.

What it looks like on dark skin

Typically, nanoparticle-based sunscreens rub into skin easily and quickly, and they dry sheer. So no white cast.

Mineral sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens use active mineral ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide. They reflect the sun’s rays like a mirror to protect exposed skin.

What it looks like on dark skin

Mineral sunscreens simply don’t rub into skin as well, often leaving a white film, which is likely to leave darker skin looking greyish, whitish or sometimes bluish, which to me is so not a good look.

Both types of sunscreen could irritate skin, however I lean more towards chemical sunscreen as unlike mineral sunscreen i do not find them oily and they don’t clog my pores.

In conclusion, there are so many benefits to wearing a sunscreen and for me, aside from protecting my skin from premature ageing; it also helps a lot with my hyperpigmentation. Sunscreen helps my hyperpigmentation issues by inhibiting any further darkening of the scars I am trying to fade as well as preventing new scars from forming. However, my primary reason for wearing sunscreen is to prevent skin cancer and I use this not only on my face but any parts of my body which will be exposed to the sun, I have on occasion used it on my scalp at my hair parting as this is also skin.

All in all whether you are looking to sunscreen for aesthetic or health reasons, remember even darker skin requires protection from the damaging effects of the sun.