by | Jan 30, 2012

Ethnic Skin & Sun Damage

Darker and olive skin, including black skin, is just as vulnerable as lighter skin tones to the “ravages” of sun damage. Sun damage produces many “looks” including chronic sunburn, redness and spider veins, deep wrinkles and fine lines, sagging skin, a rough, leathery skin, hyperpigmentation (uneven skin tone, dark spots and hormonal patches called melasma), pre-cancerous lesions known as keratoses and skin cancers, including the often fatal melanoma.

Denial Leads to Sun Damage

Often, people of color will say: “I’m not trying to get darker”; “I’m dark, so I don’t need sunscreen”; “The melanin in black skin is enough protection”; “I’m never out in the sun” or “I never burn”.  The sad truth: All intermittent day-to-day sun exposure has a cumulative effect and discolors the skin tone, roughens the texture and damages the underlying structure of the skin itself. Casual sun exposure, like riding on a bus, driving a car, running, walking or gardening, is the most damaging sun because it occurs on a daily basis over a long period of time.

Often, people of color will tell me: “I’m not trying to get darker”; “I’m dark, so I don’t need sunscreen”; “The melanin in black skin is enough protection”; “I’m never out in the sun” or “I never burn”.  The sad truth: All intermittent day-to-day sun exposure causes sun damage and has a cumulative effect and discolors the skin tone, roughens the texture and damages the underlying structure of the skin itself. Casual sun exposure, like riding on a bus, driving a car, running, walking or gardening, is the most damaging sun because it occurs on a daily basis over a long period of time.

Our Depleted Ozone Layer

The realities of diminished ozone and global warming have been well-publicized.  Most people in developed countries are well aware of the need to protect their skin and their children’s skin from the sun, though most still don’t make it a priority. Before going into the sun, even for a short time, full-spectrum sunscreen needs to be applied generously to all exposed skin to prevent sun damage. Then, it must be reapplied often, even when exposed to indirect sun, and also after swimming, exercising, perspiring and rubbing with a towel.

Waterproof Sunscreen: False Sense of Security

Products claim to be waterproof and sweatproof, but under most conditions most don’t last, so it’s important to reapply as often as every hour when exposed to prolonged sun. Sun protection factors (SPFs) are numbers that indicate how long the skin can be exposed to the shorter UVB rays before “burning and reddening” occurs, so don’t rely on a waterproof, high SPF sunscreen to protect you during six hours of continuous sun or even against the subtle, deeper-penetrating UVA rays on overcast days. Windows and cloudy skies won’t protect your skin from sun damage because the longer, darkening UVA rays can penetrate clouds and glass.

Don’t Be Fooled: Clouds and Overcast Skies

That glare that causes us to squint on overcast days just confirms the presence of the longer UVA rays. It’s these skin darkening, cancer-causing rays that penetrate the cloud layer and car windows, causing the skin and eye area to darken, become uneven and blotchy, flesh moles to surface, freckles to multiply and skin cancers to form. Even brief sun exposure can cause sun damage or a rough, swollen itchy rash called photo-dermatitis if one is naturally sensitive to the sun, suffers from an auto-immune disease, or is taking one or more sun-sensitizing medications.

Don’t Neglect Your Body Skin

Don’t neglect the backs of your hands, forearms, shoulders, chest, ears or neck, as these areas darken quickly, especially on the “driver side.”  Wear gloves to protect your hands when washing dishes, gardening and doing household chores and apply sunscreen religiously. Chemically-irritated hands exposed to the sun can result in unattractive sun damage symptoms like pigmentary changes, rough texture, and an aging appearance.

Sunscreens Prevent Sun Damage

Physical sunscreens contain micronized titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide and provide immediate protection from both UVA and UVB rays by reflecting and bouncing harmful rays away from the skin.

Advantages: Physical blocks are effective the minute they’re applied, if a generous amount is used. Many are fragrance-free, so they’re ideal for sensitive skin and soothing for inflamed skin.

Drawback: Some products don’t appear sheer (at first) and must be massaged gently into the skin with the heel of the hand or palm to prevent that “whitish” or “purplish” haze. This process takes an extra minute at most, and the effort is well worth it. Many professional skin care offices and spas carry sheer physical sunscreens that give the skin a matte finish without a cloudy haze or oily residue. If a product seems heavy and too chalky, take the time to massage it all the way in.

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, prevent UV rays from penetrating a chemical barrier in the skin. They must absorb completely to be effective, and a generous amount must be applied to all exposed skin no less than 20 minutes before sun exposure. Chemical sunscreens can include avobenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, benzophenones, oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, homosalate, PABA, padimate O, etc.

Advantages: Chemical sunscreens are inexpensive, readily available in both dry and moisturizing formulas and look sheer the minute they’re applied, an advantage when one has very dark skin.

Drawbacks: They can be greasy and contain pore-clogging tropical oils and sun-reactive fragrances and can cause the eyes to sting. Many high-SPF products lack the key ingredients to fully protect the skin against the longer UVA rays, since the SPF levels only measure protection against UVB rays. And, since they must be applied 20 minutes before sun exposure, the necessary “wait time” can be problematic for those facing time constraints. There will be gaps in sun protection while exposed to continuous direct or indirect sun. You must re-apply sunscreen after swimming, perspiring and/or rubbing with a towel, and it takes at least 20 minutes for chemical sunscreens to penetrate enough to begin working again. Many experts recommend that these sunscreens be reapplied every hour when in direct sun.

How To Choose a Sunscreen

Your sunscreen should be “user-friendly” and be appropriate for your skin sensitivity, sensitivity to sun, skin type, lifestyle (always in a rush?) and the product’s potential to aggravate acne and irritate the eyes. Some products discourage daily compliance because of greasiness, chalky texture or eye irritation. Oily skin, acne prone skin requires a water-based, tropical oil-free formulation. Most people, especially those with sensitive skin should stick to the new generation of sheer, chemical-free, unscented zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide products. Those with very dark skin who aren’t sun-sensitive or prone to hyperpigmentation, and don’t take medication, can use a chemical sunscreen over SPF 30 that contains avobenzone, if they reapply regularly

Words of caution: Many sunscreens contain ingredients that can cause stinging, pore clogging, redness, sensitivity, and allergic reactions on sensitive skin. High levels of chemical sunscreen ingredients and fragrances have more potential to cause rashes and irritate the skin, especially in the eye area on allergy sufferers due to tearing and rubbing, and when using topical or systemic retinoids, including tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, retinyl propionate, retinol and isotretinoin.

If you’re an athlete, have extremely sensitive skin, are sun-sensitive for any reason, are pregnant, taking medication or hormones, work outdoors and/or perspire a lot, avoid the chemical sunscreens altogether. Instead, use fragrance-free products that contain micronized zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.

Protect your Eyes and Lips

UV-protective eyewear should be worn when outdoors for any length of time to prevent sun damage and dark circles in the orbital eye area. These days, most sunglasses provide UV protection. Sunglasses must be large enough to cover the entire orbital eye area. While prescription “transition” lenses darken in direct sunlight, they don’t darken sufficiently while riding in a car or bus, and are often too small to adequately cover the entire eye area.  Athletes who can’t wear sunglasses while participating in their sport do best with the micronized, chemical-free physical sun products, which won’t sting when perspiration runs into the eyes. There are many lip products available that contain full-spectrum protection, so shoot for one that is fragrance-free with an SPF of 30+. Use daily and reapply often. In addition to preventing sunburn, they help fade lip discoloration and prevent cold sores, which can flare after direct sun exposure.

Make-up with Sunscreen

These products usually provide too little UV protection, block only the UVB “burning” rays, not the UVA “browning” rays and don’t address areas where make-isn’t applied, like the neck, ears, chest, arms and hands. Get a full-spectrum stand-alone sunscreen with UVA blockers (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or avobenzone) to protect your skin before you apply make-up.

Mineral foundation and some cover creams (used to hide dark circles and skin abnormalities) contain chemical-free sunscreen and pigment. They provide a small amount of  physical sun protection and are sometimes moisture-proof, but the application is so diffuse and uneven that the FDA is disallowing some of the SPF claims. Apply make-up 10 to 15 minutes after sunscreen.

Choose and ‘fine tune’ all make-up color choices in natural, filtered daylight, not in artificial light or direct sunlight. Re-evaluate colors often if you’ve been getting skin peels and/or using skin brighteners. For a natural look, take the time find the right shade and use a light touch. Practice until you get it right, blending carefully into the neck, temples, smile lines and hairline.


The causes are many, including pregnancy, oral contraceptives, fertility drugs, hormone-containing devices, hormonal imbalances, oral antibiotics, blood pressure meds, diuretics, oral anti-diabetic drugs, Accutane® (even if it was discontinued years ago), Retin A®, Differin Gel®, tretinoin, TriLuma®, retinol, antihistamines, chemical peeling, dermabrasion, microdermabrasion, laser resurfacing, dehydration, medical conditions, including auto-immune diseases (lupus, scleroderma, vitiligo, RA, sarcoidosis, MS, thyroid disease, etc.), kidney disease, obesity, weight gain, allergies, product overuse, friction, and over-scrubbing can cause sun-sensitivity on virtually anyone. And, a lot of people are naturally sun-sensitive, no matter how dark they are.

Warning: Sun-sensitivity leads to a worsening of sun damage and pigmentation problems, especially on people of color and women who are pregnant, taking hormones, or have hormone-containing devices. Most naturally sun-sensitive people already recognize the fact that they can’t tolerate the sun. Only five minutes in the sun for a photo-sensitive person can be as hard-hitting and damaging as three hours in the same sun for someone else.

Protect Your Skin for Life

Sunscreen use can be dangerous for some people because they believe they can prolong their sun exposure, believing they are safe from sun damage. Avoid unnecessary sun exposure and avoid exposure between 10 am and after 4 pm whenever possible. Apply and reapply a potent full-spectrum sunblock religiously, even on overcast days. Make it a daily habit and be sure to apply enough sun protection to do the job. If you protect your face, neck, chest, forearms arms and hands correctly and reapply it, a four-ounce bottle of sunscreen won’t last longer than 4-6 weeks. Remember, it’s better to be safe than “uneven-toned” or worse.

© 2013-2016 Kathryn Khadija Leverette, and

The material on this website is provided for educational purposes and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.