Ice cream and sunshine have much in common. In the summertime, the sun generously gives us extra hours of light and warmth to enjoy ourselves outdoors. The warm weather virtues of ice cream cannot be overstated, but they can be best summed up by the words of a kindergartener who was overheard explaining to her mother why she needed another scoop of chocolate. “Ice cream” the little girl said, “makes my tummy smile.”

Like most good things, ice cream and soaking up the sun are best enjoyed in moderation. Overindulgence is where parity between the two summer treats ends. Eating too much ice cream may take its toll on your waistline, adding a few pounds that can be dropped with diet and exercise. However, prolonged and unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause illnesses as serious as skin cancer, says the American Cancer Society (ACS).

People of color who routinely eschew sunscreen may be surprised to learn that according to the American Academy of Dermatology (ADD), melanoma has become the most common type of cancer in the United States. The ADD’s disease projections are equally dismal; it predicts “one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.”

The “we” in this article’s title refers to all who worship the sun. But the messaging is especially directed to people of color who soak up the sun without proper sunscreen in their backyards, at baseball games, stateside beaches and popular vacation spots like the Caribbean. Apparently, many of us are unaware shallow, tropical waters reflect the sun’s brilliance, significantly increasing sunbathers’ exposure to dangerous ultraviolet rays.

Although, it may be interesting to offer speculation on the social origins of the dangerous myth that Black people do not need sunscreen, it is more productive to look to science for help dispelling the persistent belief that melanin gives Black people “natural” immunity to sun related disease. The opposite appears true. The American Red Cross (ARC) cites a study that found “skin cancer survival rates were lowest in people with darker skin, including African Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.” 

The American Red Cross offers a useful list of key terms used in their training of community health workers who are responsible for teaching sun safety to the public:

  • Broad-spectrum protection: A property of sunscreen providing protection against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.  
  • Melanin: The substance in the body that produces skin, hair, and eye pigmentation. The more melanin produced the darker the skin, hair, and eyes will be. 
  • Ozone layer: A layer in the lower region of the stratosphere containing ozone (most commonly found 6 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface), which absorbs some of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. 
  • Sun protection factor (SPF): The amount of protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation that a sun protection product will provide. 
  • Sunblock: A topical substance that contains physical or inorganic ingredients that physically block UV rays; used to protect the skin from UV rays.
  • Sunburn: Inflammation and damage of the skin caused by overexposure to the UV rays from the sun or artificial sources. 
  • Sunscreen: A topical substance that contains chemicals that absorb UV rays; used to protect the skin from UV rays. 
  • Ultraviolet (UV) rays: Rays from the sun and artificial sources that can cause sunburn. These invisible rays are part of the energy that comes from the sun but can also be delivered from artificial sources like tanning beds or sunlamps. Overexposure to UV rays can cause skin cancer, premature aging of the skin and eye damage.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s statement on why Black people need sunscreen is nuanced, yet absolute. “Melanin acts to diffuse UVB rays and may give limited protection against sunburns. But melanin does not offer people with darker skin protection against skin cancer.”

The CDC adds, “while people with darker skin are more protected from the sun, they should still use a full spectrum sunscreen. UVA damage is not blocked by melanin in the same way and can lead to premature skin aging and wrinkles. Melanin will also not protect the skin from extreme sun exposure, such as spending long hours in the sun unprotected.”

The good news is there are products on the market, created specifically for people of color. Black Girl Sunscreen was founded in 2017 by Shontay Lundy. She says she started the company to fight the myth that women of color do not need sunscreen and to offer a product that does not leave a streaky white cast when applied on the skin. 

Lundy says in her research, most Black people don’t use sunscreen because they were not taught to and were unaware of the dangers posed by unprotected exposure to the sun. She has created a water-resistant sunscreen with natural ingredients such as avocado, carrot juice, sunflower oil and jojoba. Her line includes products for children, which are fragrance free, and uses no parabens, silicones or aluminum. 

Black Girl Sunscreen’s application guidelines follows the CDC ‘s recommendations for use: apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher on all exposed skin, including the face, neck, and hands. Look for sunscreens that offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

Jayne Hopson
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