Natural Sun Protection is One of the Benefits of Melanin-Rich Skin, But You Need More....
Skincare experts advise us to use sunscreen everyday as the single most important step you can take to care for your skin. However, the belief that people with darker skin tones do not need sunscreen is a common -- yet false -- myth. People with darker skin tones are less likely to experience sunburn after prolonged sun exposure, and the common signs of aging – specifically wrinkles -- take longer to appear in the darker range of skin tones. This leads many to think that darker skin is not damaged or aged by the sun. However, while darker skin is more resistant to sunburns than lighter skin, it still needs protection from long term sun damage that ages skin and leads to problems with hyperpigmentation.
Darker skin exhibits sun damage in unique ways. In lighter skin, the sun can cause sunburns in the short-term, and long-term sun damage that leads to premature aging, fine lines and wrinkles. For those of us with darker skin, it takes more intense sun exposure to cause a burn, but long term sun damage can still result in aging that leads to hyperpigmentation, an uneven skin tone and wrinkles. While the short term results of sun damage differ based on your skin tone, those with darker skin still need to use sunscreen as part of their daily routine because everyone is susceptible to hyperpigmentation, which is a long term result from sun damage.
Little Rays of Sunshine - UVA and UVB Light
Ultraviolet light, which causes damage to the skin, is made up of UVA and UVB light. UVA light is lower energy, but it penetrates into the deeper layers of the skin and causes the long term damage that leads to aging and skin discoloration. UVB light is higher energy and causes tanning and burning - the short term damage from excess exposure to the sun. Both UVA and UVB light have an effect on all skin colors. In addition, ultraviolet light is present when it’s cloudy and during the winter months, so it’s important to use sunscreen on a daily basis, no matter the weather or season.
One of the major benefits of having darker skin is our natural sun protection provided by a large amount of melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. Melanin provides some burn protection from the harmful effects of UVB light, giving darker skin a natural SPF of 15. But that is not enough to protect you from the long term damage and hyperpigmentation caused by UVA light.
The ABC's of SPF
Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect your skin from UVB light. It’s important to note that sunscreens will not protect your skin against UVA light unless the product specifically mentions it provides broad spectrum protection, which protects against both types of ultraviolet light. If your goal is to prevent sunburn, which is caused by UVB light, then most sunscreens will be fine. However, if your goal is to prevent long term damage caused by UVA light, you need broad spectrum protection.
The SPF of products can range from 15 to 100, but more is not always better. An SPF of 30 is not double the protection of SPF 15: SPF 15 blocks 93% of ultraviolet rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 98%. So for daily use, an SPF of 30 is enough.
Ingredients in Your Sunscreen
The active ingredients in sunscreen work in two ways: physical and chemical.
These work by sitting on top of your skin to deflect and scatter UV light away from the skin. Their active mineral ingredients, mainly titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, provide broad spectrum protection when used together. As mineral products, they are non-irritating and are great to use on sensitive skin. They are also non-comedogenic and have antibacterial activity, so they are great to use if you have oily or acne-prone skin. Additionally, physical sunscreens provide protection immediately upon application and have a longer shelf life. However, as physical protectants, when you sweat, they can rub off easily. As a result, they must be reapplied frequently. The biggest complaint about mineral sunscreens is they can be chalky and opaque and leave a white cast that is easily seen on darker skin tones. Fortunately, micronized formulations reduce the white cast on darker skin while maintaining good broad spectrum protection that works with sensitive skin.
These contain organic compounds that are absorbed into the skin and work by changing UV light into heat through chemical reactions, which is then released from the skin. Avobenzone is one of the best chemical sunscreen ingredients available in the US. It is safe and provides broad spectrum protection as it is effective against UVA light. Chemical sunscreens tend to be thinner and easy to spread, making them ideal for daily use. Since the protectant isn’t physical, you need less to shield your skin and the product goes on clear (a huge plus for darker skin tones). However, it must be noted that you should apply this type of sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going out into the sun. Additionally, you need to re-apply the product frequently. Keep in mind, chemical sunscreens can clog your pores, (leading to breakouts), and can be irritating to people with sensitive skin.
Choosing a Good Sunscreen for Darker Skin
The sunscreen you choose to use on your skin depends on your skin type and need for protection. Here are a few tips on how to choose the right sunscreen suited to your level of sun exposure and skin type.
Type of Light Exposure
Incidental vs. intense exposure: The kind of sunscreen you use will vary depending on the type of outdoor exposure you are expecting. For incidental sun exposure - when you are outside for only a few minutes at a time – experts recommend an SPF of 30. For longer, more intense sun exposure, like days on the beach or other outdoor activities, you should use water resistant sunscreen with an SPF over 30 and re-apply it every two hours. Don’t rely solely on sunscreen; you should also wear hats, use umbrellas and cover your skin for additional protection. For both types of exposure, make sure your sunscreen provides broad spectrum protection.
Your Skin Type
If you have oily or acne prone skin, you will need to avoid sunscreens that clog your pores. Some acne medications increase sun sensitivity, so rigorous daily sun protection is very important when you use those products. Zinc oxide soothes and protects the skin while reducing inflammation and oil production. Thus, products with this mineral miracle are ideal for people with oily skin. If you have dry skin, try to use a moisturizing sunscreen. There are many oil based sunscreens that are excellent and offer broad spectrum protection.
If you have any skin allergies or sensitive skin, you may want to limit yourself to physical sunscreens rather than the chemical ones, as the ingredients in physical sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation. Many people are not aware that their irritated skin may be due to allergies to sunscreen ingredients. To avoid irritation, read the labels of your cosmetics, as many contain sunscreen. If you absolutely cannot use any sunscreen, you can apply antioxidants vitamins, like C and E, to your skin, as natural sun protectants. Regular application of vitamins C and E can help reduce UV damage.
People with darker skin might prefer using chemical sunscreens as they are clear when applied to the skin. However, people with darker skin are also more likely to have sensitive skin which is irritated by chemical sunscreens. In that case, use physical sunscreens formulas made with micronized zinc oxide, as the particles are small enough to allow them to blend in and disappear into the skin, while providing non-irritating sun protection.
For all skin tones and types, the key to a beautiful and healthy glow is daily sunscreen use to keep your skin protected and even toned. Caring for your skin is very much about prevention, and wearing sunscreen is one of the easiest, yet most effective, things you can do for healthier skin now and in the future.
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