Your Health

True or False: Dark-skinned People Don't Need Sunscreen

mythbuster graphic Is it true that people with dark skin are not at risk of getting a sunburn or skin cancer ? This is a common misconception that dermatologists are working hard to clear up. Although dark skin does offer more natural protection from the sun’s harmful rays than light skin, no one is immune to the damage caused by the sun.

Evidence for the Health Claim

Dark-skinned people, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans, naturally produce more of a chemical called melanin, which gives the skin color and absorbs the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. In fact, dark-skinned blacks have a natural skin protection factor (SPF) of up to 13, and filter twice as much UV radiation as fair-skinned people.

SPF is a rating calculated by comparing the amount of time it would take for an unprotected fair-skinned person to burn, to the amount of time it would take to burn when wearing sunscreen. For example, SPF 15 allows a person to multiply the initial unprotected burning time by a factor of 15. If a person’s skin turns red after 10 minutes in the sun with no sunscreen, for example, it would take 150 minutes for him to burn. Also, an SPF of 15 indicates that 93% of sunburning rays are deflected.

Evidence Against the Health Claim

Health experts advise everyone, regardless of skin color, to use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Although dark-skinned people won’t get sunburned as quickly, they will still burn and are still susceptible to sun-induced damage—such as sun spots and wrinkles—and cancer . At a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers from the University of Cincinnati (UC) presented study results showing that dark-skinned people are actually more likely to die from skin cancer than light-skinned people.

The lead author of the study pointed out that the commonly held belief that people with darker skin won’t get sunburned or get skin cancer gives such people a false sense of security. They are less likely to take preventative measures, such as wearing sunscreen, and also are less likely to routinely check for signs of skin cancer. As a result, when dark-skinned people are diagnosed with skin cancer, the disease may be in an advanced stage and more difficult to treat.

Although fewer people with dark skin actually get skin cancer, the death rate for dark-skinned people with skin cancer is higher than for light-skinned people (who technically are at greater risk of developing skin cancer). Increasing awareness of the importance of sunscreen and routine skin checks for people of all skin types is an important part of skin cancer prevention.

Conclusion

Although dark skin is naturally more protective against harmful rays from the sun than fair skin, people of all skin types can burn if they don’t wear sunscreen. The burn may not be as obvious on dark skin, but this does not mean it is harmless. It is important for everyone to take preventative measures against sunburn and skin cancer. No one should consider themselves immune to sunburns and skin cancer!

  • The burning facts. United States Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/doc/sunscreen.pdf . Published September 2006. Accessed August 16, 2006.

  • Dark skin does not block cancer. BBC News. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/5219752.stm . Published July 2006. Accessed August 16, 2006.

  • Facts about sunscreens. (2006). American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: http://www.aad.org/public/News/DermInfo/DInfoSunscreenFAQ.htm . Accessed August 16, 2006.

  • Hall HI, Rogers JD. Sun protection behaviors among African Americans. Ethn Dis. 1999;9:126-131.

  • Harper A. Skin cancer rare–but more deadly–in people with darker skin. University of Cincinnati website. Available at: http://uccancercenter.uc.edu/news/latest/release.cfm?id=4160 . Accessed August 16, 2006.

  • How to be safe when you’re in the sun. The Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://www.kidshealth.org/kid/watch/out/summer%5Fsafety.html . Updated August 2007. Accessed November 17, 2008.

  • Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/sunscreens. Accessed October 20, 2014.