Being blessed with melanin thanks to my African ancestry, it’s easy to assume that I’m not likely to get sun damage or melanoma.
Over the years, I’ve had people comment on how “lucky” I must be to not have to wear sunscreen, or that somehow, I don’t get burnt.
The truth is, sunscreen is just as important for people with darker skin. And without it, the consequences can be lethal. Here’s why.
Busting the dark skin myth
A common and pervasive misconception is that dark-skinned people don’t need sunscreen.
While it is true that people with more melanin (the pigment that gives skin its colour) in their skin are offered some protection from the sun by absorbing and distributing UV radiation (the main cause of cancer), they are still susceptible to skin cancer and sun damage. Melanin is not a perfect barrier.
I haven’t always subscribed to wearing sunscreen. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve found myself religiously following the advice I got as a child at school to “slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat”.
Heather Walker from the Cancer Council of Australia says there’s not a lot of Australian research looking into the impact of sun damage on darker skin tones, but there is evidence from international studies.
Research from the United States suggests that although people with darker skin are less likely to be diagnosed with melanoma, when they are it’s usually at a later stage of the disease, Ms Walker says. This means they are more likely to die from it as a result.
“That means it’s harder to treat, so it’s important for people to know what to look out for: anything new, any new spots on the skin, anything unusual,” she says.
People with dark skin also often develop skin cancers in unusual places, such as the soles of their feet or fingernails, and so tell-tale symptoms tend to be missed.
No-one is safe from skin cancer in Australia
According to the Australasian College of Dermatologists (ACD), Australia has a very high incidence of skin cancer, both melanoma and non-melanoma.
A big factor here in Australia is that we have some of the highest ultraviolet or UV levels on the planet.
The ACD describes UV radiation as the “energy produced by the sun” and divide it into three types according to its wavelength: UVB, UVA and UVC.
- UVB is more energetic, is blocked by window glass and is the main cause of sunburn.
- UVA is less energetic but penetrates more deeply into the skin. UVA is not blocked by window glass.
- UVC is the most dangerous but is currently entirely screened out from reaching the Earth’s surface by the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. Ozone gas also filters out most of the UVA and UVB radiation.
How to protect your skin from the sun
So regardless of your skin tone, you need to minimise your exposure to UV radiation.
Here are some of the easiest and most effective ways to protect your skin:
- Using a broad-spectrum SPF 50 sunscreen (which protects against UVA and UVB)
- Wearing an appropriate hat
- Wearing sun-protective clothing
- Wearing sun-protective eyewear
- Avoiding the outdoors during the peak periods of the day.
One of the things that put me off religiously applying sunscreen was the ‘ghost’ look that sunscreen leaves on dark skin.
Depending on the formula, sunscreens can leave behind a blue or purple tinge on deeper skin tones.
However, in recent years, more brands have improved their formulas and now create sun protection products that work and don’t leave a white cast on dark skin.
So, now it’s (finally!) possible to protect your skin without having to sacrifice style.
Making sure you get vitamin D
Although the sun’s UV rays are the main cause of melanoma, they are also the best source for vitamin D production in our bodies. Vitamin D is a hormone that controls calcium levels in the blood. It’s needed for strong bones, muscles and overall health.
For Australians with darker skin, these skin cancer prevention measures can sometimes lead to a vitamin D deficiency.
“Because darker-skinned people have more melanin, the UV doesn’t get to where it needs to be in terms of vitamin D production. We recommend people with darker skin tones speak to their GP about supplementation,” Ms Walker says.
Ms Walker says people who also fully cover their bodies for religious or cultural reasons are also at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
So, there’s actually more to watch out for if you’re an Australian with darker skin tones.
Not only do we need to ensure we’re protecting ourselves when going out in the sun — we also need to ensure we’re keeping track of our vitamin D levels.
Given this dual dilemma, and the particularly harsh Australian sun, hopefully we’ll start seeing some more local research that can help combat the prevalence of skin cancer.