How sunscreen helps keep your skin healthier

Sunday June 28 2020

The song about wearing sunscreen has never really stopped. PHOTO | COURTESY


The song about wearing sunscreen has never really stopped. It presses on a relentless beat reminding you that you are a monster if you leave the house without putting on a layer of sun protection.

But first, before we care so much about why we need to wear it, what exactly is sunscreen? Well, one, it does exactly what it says it will. It is a skin product that protects your skin from sun rays. Two rays, in particular, are bad for your skin. They always come in a pair - UVA and UVB. UV stands for Ultra Violet radiation, a form of electromagnetic energy.

Sunscreen can be a tad picky and is one of the most controversial skincare products for race reasons, and you will soon see why. If you are black, wearing sunscreen prevents ageing, hyperpigmentation (the discolouration of the skin that tends to happen in patches) and sun damage. These are primarily caused by 95 per cent of the sun’s rays. Basically, there are 500 times more UVA rays than there are UVB. Contrary to common belief, UVA can cause some types of cancers. What this says, and hear it well, is that black people CAN get skin cancer even if it is rare. The easiest way to remember the beating down by UVA rays is to think A for ageing.

Why is the sun discriminating? It is a little complicated. If you are Caucasian, you need to protect yourself from UVA rays for the same reasons blacks do, and then top it up with more profound anxieties around skin cancer thanks to UVB rays. These constitute 5 per cent of the sun’s rays and B here stands for burn.

A 2019 report on sunscreen and black skin found that black people need to wear sunscreen for the reasons stated above because melanin is a protector against cancer. But at the same time, medical experts are noticing that a whole lot of black people suffer from Vitamin D deficiencies because of too little sun.

Researchers have a subjective measure called the Fitzpatrick Skin Scale, breaking skin tones into six different categories. Type VI is deep mahogany to espresso, a highly-melanated dark-skinned beauty who takes time before they burn. Note, this does not mean burning is impossible. It just takes more sun to get there. Type 1 is white skin, always burns, never tans. Natural ivory-toned redheads tend to fall in this category. Why does this matter? Because Type I, II and III need to wear SPF30 at the very least while Types IV, Vand VI can get way with a minimum of SPF15.


The problem with the highly-melanated is this — we seem to come with an inbuilt aversion to sunscreen under the guise of “black don’t crack.” Except when it does, albeit slower to show.

Melanin does not stop our skins from experiencing sun damage, ageing faster owing to UV exposure and turning hyperpigmented, where certain parts of your skin are darker than others. Pigmentation can occur due to a flare-up such as eczema, a bad breakout, or prolonged exposure to the sun. And when you are prone to hyperpigmentation, which black skin is, then you want to both treat and counter it by wearing sunscreen.

Once you are hyperpigmented, there are treatments you can undergo to bring your skin back to its natural balance of melanin. One of is using retinoids, a product withingredients that make it sensitive to the sun hence its prescribed nightly usage.  Retinoids, retinol and Retin A make the skin sensitive to the sun. As does Vitamin C and use of any acids from AHAs, BHAs, kojic to salicylic. Be sunscreen-careful when going through facial peels and salon facials. If you have ever applied lemon on your face (and I cannot for the life of me figure out why you would do such a cruel thing to your face), and stepped out into the sun, that would be the harsher version of wearing retinoids to bed and not wearing sunscreen by day.

What is it exactly about sunscreen that prevents hyperpigmentation? When the sun hits a part of you that has turned dark, it turns even darker. If you are wearing sunscreen, it bounces of off you in protection. But, and this is critical when treating hyperpigmentation, wear higher than average SPF quantities. SPF30 that blocks at least 98 per cent of UV rays. Yes, the rays penetrate your windows when you are indoors too.

I wear SPF50 because of acne pigmentation. When shopping for sunscreen,  you will come across something called a “broad-spectrum sunscreen.” That means it throws everything at the sun. It is not specifically made to prevent the damage caused by UVB or UVA alone. Look for these two particular ingredients in your sunscreen — zinc oxide and titanium oxide. They are safe and approved.

This is critical because studies have discovered that certain harmful ingredients in sunscreen get absorbed into the bloodstream.

Here is the other not so great news. Sunscreens seem to be built for the perils of Caucasian skin. Traditional sunscreen, unfortunately, happens to protect more against UVB rays that prevent tanning, sunburn and various forms of melanoma caused by B rays. There is a reason there is a movement demanding sunscreen for darker skin.

We need UVA-specific sunscreen that protects us, does not leave a sheen, a greyish or yellowish cast on our skin, and of course one that does not sting the eyes.