There are many misconceptions out there about whether people with dark skin tones can sunburn. This quick, Dermatologist-approved guide will help you learn the risks that sunburn and skin cancers pose to people of color.

You may think people with dark skin are not at risk of sunburn, but the truth is that all skin is damaged to some extent by the sun. Sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and will vary based on an individual's sun sensitivity and the intensity of UV radiation exposure.

Although sunburn and its resulting issues are most commonly seen among younger adults and those with fair skin, it is important for everyone to practice sun safety, especially as they age.

Skin Conditions in Darker Skin

Black people might not be the most susceptible to sunburn, but there are certain skin conditions that they are more likely to experience.

For example, melasma is a common skin condition that most often affects women of color during their third and fourth decades of life. It appears as flat medium to dark brown patches that develop on the forehead, cheeks, and chin. Melasma is a chronic skin condition that can be difficult to treat; it rarely resolves on its own. Though not life-threatening, studies show that melasma can have a negative impact on quality of life. Sunscreen is an essential component of managing this condition. Other treatments include topical lightening agents, chemical peels, and laser therapy.

Another common skin condition that can be exacerbated by the sun is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which occurs when pigment-producing skin cells make too much melanin and turn patches of skin darker than normal. PIH can be caused by injury, general inflammation of the skin, sun damage, or a variety of other causes but is usually harmless to skin health. Treatment of PIH will focus on treating the underlying skin disorder and sun protection.

Key Cancer Stats for Skin of Color

Between 1990 and 2016, mortality per year from skin cancer doubled, affecting more people than all other cancers combined. And the incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, makes up a sizable portion of this increase. The lowest survival rates were among people of color.

In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates a five-year survival rate of just 67 percent for Black people with melanoma, compared to a 92 percent survival rate for white populations. The incidence of melanoma is far higher—about 20 percent higher—in non-Hispanic whites. Following Black people, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asian Pacific Islanders have the next highest incidence rates, respectively.

Despite a natural resistance to sunburn, non-white patients diagnosed with melanoma are more likely to die of the condition than their white counterparts. Minority patients diagnosed with melanoma often have thicker tumors that went undetected for a longer period of time. Such tumors have poor prognoses.

This disparity is troubling, especially considering the rise of non-white populations in the United States. The US Census Bureau projects that minorities, which currently account for 37 percent of the population, will make up 57 percent of the population in 2060. A large population of at-risk people certainly warrants increased education on sun care.

Tips for Every Tone

Even though the statistics above seem grim, the best way to prevent people with dark skin from burning is through preventative measures. However, there are still many ways to have fun in the sun while staying safe and protecting your skin. Check this list for some key insights on how people of color can stay on guard against the sun, no matter their skin tone.

  • Wear sunscreen daily (here's why), making sure it has at least SPF 30. A product like EltaMD UV Sheer works with all skin tones.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going out and every two hours.
  • Avoid tanning salons—artificial UV tanning is harmful to skin.
  • Follow a healthy diet that includes calcium, vitamin D, and other nourishing nutrients.
  • Practice sun-protective behavior, such as seeking shade when the sun is at its highest and hottest. Consider wearing protective clothing that covers the head, neck, and feet.
  • See a Dermatologist regularly.

Now that you have some background information on the risks that excessive sun exposure poses to people of color, you can go on confidently and live life a little more protected. Your complexion will thank you for years to come.

Author

  • Division Director, Hampton Roads Center for Dermatology, Tidewater Physician Multispecialty Group, Newport News, Virginia; Adjunct-Associate Professor and Director, Hampton University Skin of Color Research Institute, Hampton, Virginia Valerie M. Harvey, MD, MPH, serves as co-Director of the Hampton University Skin of Color Research Institute and is the Division Director of the Hampton Roads Center for Dermatology at Tidewater Physician Multispecialty Group in Newport News, Virginia. Dr. Harvey's research areas of interests include skin disorders which disproportionately burden patients wi