With summer fast approaching, it’s important to understand the risks that come with those long, hot days in the sun. It’s also important to recognize some pretty dangerous misconceptions about sunscreen, that black kids and other kids of color don’t have to worry about skin protection and skin cancer. This includes children of Asian, Latino, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Native American descent.
Miss the mark on the sun marks
Everyone has the same number of melanocytes (the cells that make skin pigment) regardless of their skin color. What differs is the amount of melanin these cells make: Those with lighter skin produce less melanin, and those with darker skin more.
The melanin provides some natural defense against the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but not complete protection, which is why Dr. Huang advises families not to have a false sense of immunity from sun damage.
“Skin cancer can affect anyone and everyone,” she says.
Types of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinomaand melanoma. For people of color, these cancers tend to be diagnosed late, making them harder to treat. Late diagnoses may be partly due to the misconception that skin cancer does not occur in people with darker skin. This misconception can lead to missed opportunities for skin checkups or dermatology referrals.
“We traditionally think the sun is bad because it causes skin cancer and wrinkles,” says Dr. Huang. “But there are other effects that dermatologists think about.”
Such an effect is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). PIH occurs when the skin darkens after being irritated or injured, for example with acne, eczema, insect bites or cuts. Sun exposure can make this discoloration more noticeable and last longer. PIH is more common in people of color and can negatively impact their self-esteem.
Other conditions that dermatologists worry about include lupus and dermatomyositis, an inflammatory disease marked by muscle weakness and a rash. Lupus and dermatomyositis are photosensitive autoimmune diseases, which means that the sun can trigger symptoms, especially on the skin.
Good sun protection practices
If a patient asks me if they really should wear sunscreen, the answer is always yes.
–Jen Huang, MD
The threats of excessive sun exposure are real and universal, but so are the steps families can take to protect themselves.
Dr. Huang says safe sun practices are the same for everyone:
watch the clock
The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dr. Huang therefore encourages families to be careful about how much time they spend outdoors during these hours.
If your family is going to be spending a long time in the sun, like a day at the beach, Dr. Huang recommends starting early in the morning and taking a break during lunchtime, or starting later in the afternoon. .
“The clothes you wear can’t be given enough importance when it comes to sun protection,” says Dr. Huang. She encourages lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long pants, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats that protect the ears and neck.
It also encourages finding swimwear and apparel that display their UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating. UPF indicates the amount of UV radiation that the fabric allows to reach the skin. For example, a UPF rating of 30 means the material allows 1/30th (about 3%) of UV radiation. Any fabric with a rating lower than 15 is not considered anti-UV.
Sunscreen – for everyone
“If a patient asks me if they really should wear sunscreen, the answer is always yes,” says Dr. Huang.
Given the number of sunscreen options, she offers some tips to help clear up the confusion:
Opt for sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient; they are most often labeled as mineral sunscreens (sometimes called physical blockers). Physical blockers sit on the skin to physically “block” UV rays. They can effectively and safely protect against a broad spectrum of ultraviolet rays, including UVB and UVA rays. Their alternative – chemical sunscreens – “absorbs” UV rays through a chemical reaction that turns UV rays into heat which is then released from the skin. Some chemical sunscreens protect against UVB rays and others against UVA rays. Since the SPF level of a sunscreen only indicates the level of protection against UVB rays, it is more difficult to find a chemical sunscreen product that provides full coverage. However, whichever formula you choose, reapplication every 60-90 minutes is essential.
Dr. Huang also points out that bigger isn’t necessarily better, whether it’s a sunscreen’s SPF level or its price. An SPF of 30 or higher provides adequate sun protection, and most sunscreens are formulated from the same collection of ingredients, so higher SPF doesn’t mean better coverage, and higher cost doesn’t necessarily mean better ingredients.
The bright side
Despite the very real dangers of too much sun, controlled sun exposure has real benefits on things like mood, vitamin D levels, and certain medical conditions.
“The sun isn’t so bad!” said Dr. Huang. “Just manage it.”
Learn more about the Dermatology program or make an appointment.