I was out last night with some friends and their friends. One of these friend’s friends, we’ll call her Amy, is white. Walking down the street, the conversation turned to Amy and her recent trip to a sunny locale and how she got tanned and subsequently sunburned. At the end of this riveting tale, Amy puts her hand on the shoulder of Black friend #1 and says, “But you wouldn’t know anything about that,” in a very nonchalant afterthought kind of way. This isn’t that remarkable if you know Amy because she tends to say a lot of things without thinking first. Still, it caused me to roll my eyes and shoot Black Friend #1 a knowing glance.
I like to lay out in the sun. At the beach, poolside, in a park. The warmth of the sun feels so good on my skin. There’s also the metallic, bronze/gold coloring that brown people tend to get when they tan up. It’s gorgeous. Plus, tan lines can be sexy sometimes. In addition to all of that, to some degree I think I lay out to dispel stereotypes that Black folks don’t DO that. Still, I always apply sunscreen. I am conscious of the effects UV rays can have. I don’t want to look old before my time and I’d prefer not to have to deal with skin cancer and other ailments. There’s a price for beauty, but not all that!
Now there is a bit of truth to most stereotypes, meaning they usually come from somewhere. The melanin in our skin does provide a small level of natural protection from the sun’s damage. Thanks to melanin, brown skin is less susceptible to skin cancer, but when it does strike, it is often more deadly than in other skin types.
Brown folks must first be aware that they are indeed at risk for skin cancer and that early detection is important. Once every month, your skin must be examined from head to toe, paying particular attention to your hands, fingers, feet, toes, nails and mouth, where melanoma type skin cancers are more likely to appear in people of color. Look for dark brown or black spots in these areas no matter how small. Pay particular attention to new spots or spots that change. The change can be an increase in size, shape or color or a raised bump that develops within the spot. A bump on the foot or toe that is sore or does not heal is another tip off for skin cancer. Be on the lookout for dark streaks or lines along one fingernail or toenail only. If you find anything unusual, any area that you think might have changed or any particularly dark or irregular spot, see your dermatologist right away.
So what can you do? Protect yourself. Being brown-skinned does not mean you can skip through the sunscreen aisle. Though the average woman with brown skin has a natural SPF of 13 (which means you can stay in the sun without burning 13 times longer than a woman with white skin), we still need to include sunscreen in our daily skin care routine for healthy skin.
Sunscreens work by absorbing the harmful ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays before they can affect the skin. Sunblocks create a protective barrier that reflects UV rays, causing them to bounce off the skin. For most women of color, a sunscreen with an SPF 15 (which means you can stay in the sun 15 times longer without burning) is sufficient, but if you have certain medical conditions, such as lupus, or take certain medications, or have dark marks or skin discolorations, you may need a sunscreen with an SPF 30. Look for broad-spectrum products containing ingredients that protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
This summer, get out and get some sun, even if it’s in your backyard. Rub or spray on some sunblock and get some color. Spare me the “I don’t want to get dark” color-struck bullshit, too. It’s 2008 and the sun only enhances your naturally beautiful black or brown skin. Besides, many Black folks are already foresaking milk (I’m one of them) and sacrificing their vitamin D intake. Did you know you can get Vitamin D from the sun?
Simply put, exposure to the sun helps our bodies make vitamin D. Ultraviolet rays from sunlight trigger vitamin D synthesis in the skin, creating vitamin D for our bodies to use. A deficiency in this important vitamin can cause serious health problems … It causes the bone disorder known as rickets, or osteomalacia, which is a weakening or softening of the bones, and it can lead to other health problems as well… The people most at risk of vitamin D deficiency are those with inadequate dietary intake of vitamin D and those with minimal sun exposure. This includes people who are malnourished, homebound, darker-skinned, or those living in a northern latitude.