Skin matters – Why black skin also needs protection

2013-01-11 10:06

If you think having dark skin automatically protects you from sun damage, think again.

Sunscreen 101

Reapply sunscreen every two hours, even if you’re sitting in the shade. UV light reflects off concrete, glass, water, sand and even grass.

If your sunscreen is not waterproof, re-apply after a swim or if you’ve been sweating.

Apply sunscreen daily, 30 minutes before you go out. UVA rays are always there, even on overcast days.

Children also need sunscreen – use cream formulated specifically for kids.

The best protection is to stay out of the sun between 10am and 4pm, and to wear protective clothing and hats.

Although the summer holidays might be over, we may still spend some time in the sun and its damaging rays.

There’s a big misconception about sun damage to darker skins, says dermatologist Dr Thabisile Ngobese.

‘A lot of black South Africans aren’t aware that their skin needs protection from the sun.

It’s almost a running joke that we are made to be in the sun, so therefore we don’t need protection from it, but this isn’t true,’ she says.

Melanin intelligence

Melanin is the chemical in the skin that determines skin colour, but its primary function is to give skin some level of natural protection against the sun.

Melanin production is increased by contact with UV rays.

According to experts at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the US, the melanin in dark-skinned black people gives them some sun protection, up to SPF13.

It also filters twice as much UV radiation as fair skin does.

Dr Ngobese warns that while melanin has its benefits, it isn’t enough protection.

‘Black skin contains more melanin than white skin but without any added protection, black skin also suffers from sun damage and skin cancer.’

Not ‘whites only’

Thelma Lerole, a skin and beauty therapist, says that sunscreen use among black people in South Africa is low.

‘Sunscreen is still seen as a product for white people, especially among the older generation. But sunscreen is for everybody and should be used daily.’

Thelma recommends sunscreen of SPF30 or higher.

Most skin cancers can be cured if detected early.

Dr Ngobese says that while skin cancers are less common in black people, they tend to be more dangerous because they are found too late.

A study in 2006 at the University of Cincinnati showed that while fewer dark-skinned people got skin cancer, the ones who did were more likely to die from it because it was too far advanced.

‘There isn’t a culture among black people of checking for moles and other irregularities,’ Dr Ngobese says. She advises doing a head-to-toe check of your body monthly, looking for moles or any changes in your skin.

The whole UV

UVB 5%

» UVB light makes up only 5% of the UV radiation on the earth’s surface.

» Some suncreens protect only against UVB, the rays that are responsible for superficial sunburn and redness.

UVA 95%

» UVA accounts for 95% of UV radiation on the earth’s surface.

» Until recently, UVA was thought to mostly be responsible for aging skin prematurely. However, scientists have found that UVA damages skin on a deeper level and affects DNA in skin cells.

These mutations lead to melanoma, or skin cancer.

» This, in turn, has led to a re-evaluation of international standards for sunscreen UVA protection.


From April 2013, the Cancer Association of SA will allow its new SunSmart Choice logo to be displayed only on sunscreens that meet the new global standard.

Looking for moles

A … is for asymmetry: healthy moles are round and symmetrical.

B … is for border irregularities: moles should not have jagged edges and be ‘splodgy’.

C … is for colour variations: a healthy mole is one uniform shade of brown or black.

D … is for diameter: beware of moles that increase in size, or are over 6mm in diameter.

Remember your ABCDs.

» Get your iMag with City Press on Sunday

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