Sunscreen seems like an obvious go-to skin protector as extreme weather heats up the globe with record-breaking temperatures. But according to a Consumer Reports survey, 61% of Black people and 23% of Latinos reported never wearing sunscreen, believing that melanin provides natural protection.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone apply broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects your skin from the sun's UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays. This type of sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer, sunburn and premature skin aging. The sunscreen should have an SPF of 30 or higher — and yes, you still need sunscreen on a cloudy day to protect from those ultraviolet rays that pierce through the clouds.
“UV is a known carcinogen,” Dr. Ali Hendi, a dermatologist, surgeon and clinical assistant professor at Georgetown University Hospital, told Yahoo News. “We need the sun to survive, and our planet needs it. But it increases my risk for skin cancer, and as much as I want to be outside, I need to protect myself.”
While Black people are less likely to develop skin cancer, a new study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that Black men, who had a survival rate of 52%, were more likely to die from it than any other racial group. But Dr. Andrew Alexis, professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and president of the Skin of Color Society, pointed out that sun is not the only factor for skin cancer diagnoses and prognoses.
“One of the potential contributors to the higher mortality rates of melanoma, specifically in Black men, and one of the reasons why we see a lower five-year survival rate and a tendency to be diagnosed at later stages, is that melanomas in virtually pigmented skin types tend to be in places that are less frequently evaluated, looked at, like the sole of the foot or the palm of the hand, or the nail bed,” Alexis told Yahoo News.
Hendi emphasized the fact that the African American and Latino communities and the physicians who treat them don’t always have melanoma on their radar, leading to a delayed diagnosis.
“Oftentimes, their melanoma is caught at a much later stage than someone who is Caucasian. And their doctors know that [Caucasians are] at risk, so they are more likely to use sunscreen,” Hendi continued.
Here are a few myths that dermatologists are hoping to debunk for people with darker skin tones as millions experience the repercussions of dangerous heat.
Myth: Darker-skinned people don’t get skin cancer
“Regardless of our natural skin tone or skin complexion, anyone is susceptible to skin cancer, including skin cancers that can have as a risk factor UV exposure from the sun,” Alexis said.
“There’s low public awareness of the risk of skin cancer in people of color, and there’s low public awareness of the tendency for skin cancers to appear in different locations, not just the areas that are exposed frequently to the sun.”
The dermatologists said that while melanin does offer protection, it is not absolute.
“It doesn't make one completely immune to the damaging effects of the sun, but it does lower the risk to some degree,” Alexis said.
“You are still at risk, and the more UV exposure you have, the likelihood increases,” Hendi added.
Myth: Darker skin tones don’t need sunscreen or protection from the sun
Hendi emphasized the need for people of all skin types to protect their skin from the sun’s emission of ultraviolet rays and for overall skin health.
“Everybody would benefit from sunscreen, not just from skin cancer prevention, but also from an antiaging perspective,” he said.
In addition to applying sunscreen, Hendi suggests that people seek shade during the sun’s peak hours. He also advises people to wear protective clothing and UV protection sunglasses to shield their skin.
Alexis emphasized the importance of being able to find the right sunscreen for a person’s complexion that doesn’t leave a visible white cast, an issue that can create a barrier to wearing sunscreen.
“For many years, the options were limited for cosmetically elegant formulations that would be applicable to folks with richly pigmented skin,” he said. “But many of the newer formulations today are suitable for all skin types. The options that we have now can suit the vast majority of complexions.”
Myth: Sunscreen causes cancer
Hendi says we apply such minute amounts of sunscreen that the risk is “theoretical.”
“If there’s a concern over the carcinogens and chemicals in sunscreen, you can always use mineral sunscreens, and those mineral sunscreens are composed of either zinc or titanium dioxide. So those are physical sunscreens which don’t get absorbed by the skin, and they’re not carcinogens. They stay on the surface of your skin.”
Myth: People with darker skin don’t burn from the sun
“Having a history of intense sun exposure, including sunburns, is associated with higher risk for skin cancers in general,” Alexis said. “I have seen skin cancers of various types, be it basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma, in patients of all different backgrounds and skin types. In particular, basal cell carcinomas are very much closely associated with sun exposure regardless of one’s skin type.”