Getting real about sunscreen

Sun rays are one of the biggest aggressors to our skin and cause untold amounts of damage over time. A scary thought is that some of the damage isn’t even visible until years later, making it very problematic to treat, as the origin is long gone over the years. The sun rays that we need to be most concerned about are the invisible Ultra Violet Rays – UVA & UVB. Put simply, the former is responsible for ageing your skin and the latter burning your skin.

UVA rays go much deeper and further into the dermis (the second layer of skin) and are responsible for ageing and wrinkling via sun damage. UVA rays damage and degrade important plumping collagen and elastin fibres in the skin, causing a cascade of cell damage that leads to premature skin ageing. The outward appearance is slack, saggy, crepey and patchy uneven skin. If you already suffer from pigmentation issues, then they worsen.

UVB rays reach is limited to the outermost layer of skin – the epidermis and that is where they cause damage to skin cells leading to the development of skin cancer. UVB rays can burn and also cause damage the skin all year round.

UV Protection is Not Optional

We all need to apply a daily broad spectrum sunscreen as UVA and UVB rays affect us all to varying degrees. Regardless of skin colour – black, white, pink or green – sunscreen is not optional.

Also, regardless of the weather – sunny or cloudy, cold or warm sunscreen is a must. UVA/B rays penetrate through the Earth’s atmosphere all year round and some surfaces actually increase the intensity of the rays. For example – the reflective properties of snow can increase the sun’s intensity by a whopping 80%.

Black skin and the Sunscreen Myth

It is a complete myth that black skin does not require sunscreen. Black skin has an intrinsic SPF of approximately 13, but that alone is NOT enough. It may take longer for someone with darker skin to burn when compared to white skin, but the burn will come eventually and with that will be damaged skin.

One of the biggest skin concerns of my black skin clients is hyperpigmentation. A lot of which can directly be attributed to unprotected UVA exposure. Dark skin is naturally prone to resultant hyperpigmentation following any sort of trauma – e.g acne, spots, cuts. The melanocyte cells go into overdrive producing more melanin in order to protect the skin. Hence you go darker.

UVA rays cause trauma in the skin too, thus illicit the same sort of reactionary melanocytes frenzy to absorb as much of the UV as possible. This increase is what causes the darker deposits that leave behind patchwork skin of varying colours i.e uneven skin tone. Applying appropriate and adequate levels of sunscreen is the one of the skincare pillars that guards against hyper-pigmented skin.

Skin Cancer is Deadlier for Black Skin

It is also important to note that sun exposure skin cancer related death rates in black patients is higher than that of white patients. Why? The belief that has been perpetuated over the years that black people don’t need sun protection leading to a blasé attitude regarding checking the skin (including hands and feet) for potentially cancerous moles and spots. Therefore by the time skin cancer symptoms are showing, it is unfortunately too late to treat what usually is a HIGHLY treatable disease, when caught in the early stages.

UV exposure cancer in black people can show up anywhere, not even necessarily on the skin, but on the soles of feet, palms of the hand, finger/toenails.

Having black skin is NOT a guarantee against skin cancer.


Choosing a Sunscreen

Sunscreens are divided into two categories:

Physical – These types of sunscreen place a block over your skin using substances like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These reflect the sun rays and is akin to covering your skin in millions of tiny mirrors! They usually don’t require multiple applications during the day except if you are swimming or sweating a lot.

Chemical – Absorb UV rays using special filter substances such as Octylcrylene, Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate. Chemical sunscreens don’t always protect against UVA and UVB at the same time, so it is important to look for a brand that is broad spectrum. Many require you to reapply throughout the day to ensure full protection as the key ingredients break down in sunlight i.e. they are not photo stable.

My advice is – as a minimum; use a SPF 30 broad spectrum UVA/B sunscreen, remembering to keep your face and body sunscreen separate. If you so choose, you can also get specific sunscreen for the eye area and for the lips too.

Physical sunscreens are always at the top of my list, especially from a post treatment point of view. Skin peels leave the skin delicate and prone to sun related hyperpigmentation, so my advice is to layer on a stable physical sunscreen that provides complete protection.