Sun and skin of colour

sun and skin of colour

Sun exposure can affect all skin types including skin of colour. Although people with darker skin tones might not get sunburned as often, they’re still at risk of sun damage. Those with darker complexions may notice their skin getting even darker after sunburn, accompanied by a burning sensation and pain upon touching the area.

Here, we’ll examine the effects of sun exposure on darker skin and provide useful tips for effective sunburn prevention.

The effects of the sun on darker skin

The response of skin to the sun’s ultraviolet rays varies based on the skin tone. Darker skin is less prone to sunburn due to a higher presence of melanin, a pigment that gives skin its colour and provides some degree of protection against sun damage. In a study featured in the International Journal of Dermatology, approximately 66% of Black individuals in the UK stated that they had never experienced sunburn. And the same proportion had not used any form of sun protection.

However, despite its protective characteristics, darker skin is not invincible against sun damage, which can be more challenging to identify due to the skin’s pigmentation.

Another concern about the effect of sun exposure is sun-induced ageing and although brown and dark brown skin types have more natural protection against this than fairer skin types it can still occur.

People who have skin of colour are more prone to developing hyperpigmentation, in other words darker spots or patches caused by skin disease such as acne or injuries. Exposure to the sun can make these worse and sun protection creams may help to prevent this.

Sunburn in darker skin

Detecting sunburn in fair skin is relatively straightforward. It typically manifests as noticeable redness and inflammation. However, in darker skin tones, identifying the subtle red or pink hue of sunburn can be more challenging.

Regardless of skin tone, sunburn symptoms include a sensation of heat, sensitivity to touch, pain, irritation, and itching. As the healing process gets underway, the damaged skin starts to peel away. Despite the discomfort, sunburn typically resolves on its own within a few days, provided the skin is properly cared for during this period.

In darker skin, it’s important to note that severe sunburn leading to heat stroke might be harder to detect. If you have spent time in the sun and begin to experience symptoms like headaches, nausea or dizziness, visibly swollen skin with blisters, an unusually high temperature, shivering, chills, or muscle cramps, it’s advisable to seek medical assistance immediately.

Protecting darker skin against sunburn

It’s crucial for everyone, whatever their skin tone, to prioritise sun protection. Ensure regular application of broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB radiation, preferably with a sun protection factor of 50. This should be applied at least 20 minutes before going outside and should be frequently reapplied outdoors, especially after swimming.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the safest and most effective. These sunscreens can leave a white cast on the skin. However, advancements in the development of micronized versions have made them more aesthetically pleasing for those with darker skin tones.

For optimal sun protection, avoid the sun during peak hours (between 11am – 3pm), seek shade on extremely sunny days, and wear protective clothing such as sunglasses or wide-brimmed hats to safeguard any exposed skin.

People with darker skin can get skin cancer too

Skin cancer is much rarer in people with skin of colour, but it can be much harder to detect. This may lead to delays in seeking medical help so that it is not treated at an early stage and is more serious. For all skin types, if you have a new or changing skin lesion, especially one that won’t heal up you should book an appointment to have it checked. For people with darker skin types, it is especially important to check areas that can be overlooked. Check areas like the palms, soles, nails and mucous membranes (i.e. the moist surfaces inside the mouth, eyes, nose and genitals.) If you have any concerns, it is always better to request a consultation.

This leaflet here produced by the British Association of Dermatologists is very helpful.