Black Women Are Still Not Wearing Sunscreen Every Day — and the Result Could Be Fatal
State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.
There's long been a misconception in the Black community that wearing sunscreen isn't a necessity, and InStyle's State of Skin study further proved that notion to be true.
Our research found that out of over 1,800 women surveyed across racial and ethnic divides, Black women were the least likely to use SPF products. But the truth is, sun protection is necessary every single day, no matter your complexion. "Darker skin won’t burn as easily, but that doesn’t mean that the damaging effects of UV rays in the form of hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and cancer aren’t occurring," oculofacial plastic surgeon and founder of Brooklyn Face and Eye Dr. Chaneve Jeanniton explains. Still, there are a multitude of reasons why Black women are choosing to forgo sunscreen in their daily routines.
Dr. Cheryl Burgess, a D.C.-based dermatologist, believes that this misconception stems from outdated theories about skin. "When the Fitzpatrick Skin Types I to VI were established and defined in 1975, skin types IV to VI were believed to mostly 'tan' and rarely burned from the damaging ultraviolet B sunrays," she says. "It was interpreted by most to imply that darker skin types didn’t usually sunburn, and therefore, people believed they didn’t need sun protection."
However, as Dr. Jeanniton mentioned, although darker skin may offer some defense from the sun, the melanin Black women possess naturally is simply not enough to provide full protection. "The higher melanin in black skin blocks UV light up to SPF 13," the MD shares. "But wearing SPF 30 or higher [on a daily basis] is what's recommended."
Vanessa Adams, a 29-year-old Toronto-based marketing associate, has a different reason for skipping sunscreen. While she says she understands the importance of SPF when it comes to protecting her skin, she hasn't found an option that works for her dark skin.
"The few times in my younger years that I have put on sunscreen, it has created a cast over my skin that made me look ashy. When this would happen it would leave my skin looking gray, and if I would rinse myself with water it would leave me extremely dry."
But sunscreen has come a long way toward being a better product for everyone, especially thanks to Black women like Shontay Lundy who created Black Girl Sunscreen, a line of affordable SPF products that protect brown skin without leaving any residue behind. The vegan, all-natural formula also includes nourishing ingredients like avocado, jojoba, and sunflower oil to keep the skin moisturized. Elta MD, a favorite of Dr. Jeanniton, is another brand that sells a plethora of sheer sunscreens. What also makes it ideal for Black women is that it's formulated with high-purity niacinamide, which helps to treat hyperpigmentation — a major skincare concern for this group.
The only issue is that these brands aren't necessarily as accessible as many drugstore products; leaving women like Adams in a tough position, which could cause serious health problems down the line.
VIDEO: When You Apply Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine Actually Matters A Lot
A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that while Black people are less likely to contract skin cancer, on average, they have the highest mortality rates from the disease after diagnosis. "It's more deadly due to being diagnosed at a later stage," Dr. Burgess explains.
"This is thought to be due to the lack of awareness among Black women when it comes to skin diseases and the effect of sun exposure," Dr. Jeanniton adds. "Skin cancer does not discriminate — it’s the most common form of cancer in the United States and it is largely preventable. Diligent sunscreen use and regular skin checks save lives."
Model Slick Woods, who is well-known for working with Rihanna's Fenty empire, recently revealed on her Instagram page that she's undergoing chemotherapy treatment for skin cancer. While Woods has not publicly shared the details of her journey, she told The Shade Room that she is "currently fighting for her life" after being diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma, which has reportedly spread.
In Dr. Jeanniton's practice, she mainly sees skin cancers present on the eyelids of Black women, an area that is often overlooked when it comes to SPF coverage. But by the time patients come in to see her, the disease has usually advanced. "The tumors that I see in Black women tend to be rarer types of growths; requiring more lengthy, extensive treatments," she shares.
But the good news is that as the serious risks of sun exposure become more well-known among the Black community, more women are starting to wear SPF on a daily basis.
"With the sun being so intense, and our climate deteriorating by the day, it's top of mind that I wear sunscreen every day," says Jada Gomez, a 37-year-old New York City-based senior editor at Medium. "Even in the winter."
Gomez's routine is exactly what both MDs recommend for this demographic, despite the years of hearsay and outdated studies that have led many Black women to believe they don't need protection of UV rays.
But if you're struggling to find a formula that works on your richly melanated skin, Dr. Burgess offers a simple solution that may help: "Place the sunscreen in the palm of the hand, then rub the hands together, evenly dispersing the cream on the palms," she explains. "Apply to the skin as if applying lotion and the cream should go on sheer in its opacity."
Now that's definitely worth testing out, rather than exposing your skin to the sun's harmful rays.