There’s a common saying: Black don’t crack.
They say that black people don’t show age or get wrinkles as much as other races.
However, that doesn’t mean that your skin isn’t vulnerable to sunburn or skin damage.
While black people are less likely to get sunburn, it can and does happen.
Sunburn causes a range of problems like pain, premature ageing, precancerous lesions, and skin cancer.
Black people are also statistically more likely to die from skin cancer.
Luckily, there are plenty of things that you can do to prevent sunburn and to treat the symptoms if it happens.
In this guide, we teach you everything there is to know about sunburn with black skin and what you can do to avoid it.
What is sunburn?
Sunburn happens when your skin is overexposed to UV light, either from the sun or an artificial source like a solarium.
The skin becomes red, painful, and hot, and more extreme cases have additional symptoms like blistering, inflammation, fever, nausea, and headache.
There are two kinds of UV light that reach the earth: UVA and UVB.
UVA is long wavelength radiation that penetrates deep into the skin while tanning and wrinkling the surface.
It is more linked to premature aging and can cause some skin cancers.
UVB has a medium wavelength and affects the top layer of the skin, called the epidermis. It is most commonly linked to skin cancer.
Sunburn usually appears on the skin a couple of hours after excessive exposure to UV light, and tends to get worse before it gets better.
Do black men get sunburn?
There is a common myth that Black people don’t get sunburn.
However, sunburn on black skin happens, and more frequently than you would think.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2019, of the men who had been sunburnt at least once that year:
- More than 65% were White
- 32% were Hispanic
- 9% were Black
So, while Black men experience sunburn less than other races, it is possible and does happen.
Sunburn on black skin doesn’t have the classic red appearance that you might imagine.
Your skin will feel hot, sore, and itchy, and it is likely to peel and then go darker after a few days.
Why melanin protects from some sunburn but not all of it
Melanin is the pigment in your skin that determines your skin color.
Melanin protects the skin from sunburn in several ways:
- Absorbing UV light
- Scattering UV radiation
- Filtering UV radiation
- Acting as an antioxidant
The amount and kind of melanin that you have determines how well it protects your skin from sunburn.
It’s found in a part of the skin cell called a melanosome, which creates, stores, and transports melanin.
Black skin has 3-6 times more melanin than white skin and has more melanosomes that produce pigment.
The melanosomes in black skin are also longer, allowing them to absorb UV more effectively than white skin.
This means that in general, Black people are more resistant to the sun because of their melanin.
However, if you overexpose yourself to the sun, the melanin is oversaturated and can’t block all of the UV radiation.
Not all black skin is created equal
Black skin covers a wide range of different shades.
Dermatologists use the Fitzpatrick scale to classify skin according to how UV light affects it. The scale covers from Type 1 (ivory) to Type 6 (dark brown or black).
The following categories could apply to your black skin:
- Type 4: light brown/olive. The skin tans but rarely burns.
- Type 5: medium brown. The skin tans easily.
- Type 6: dark brown or black. The skin almost always tans.
Type 6 has the most melanin and is the hardest to get sunburnt, but any of these categories are still vulnerable to sun damage.
What type of damage can sunburn cause?
UV light can change and damage the DNA of skin cells, leading to changes, discoloration, and more permanent damage like cancer or scarring.
If you’re looking to maintain your youthful glow, you should try to limit your sun exposure.
Sunburn on black skin and continual exposure to UV radiation can lead to:
- Drier skin
- Visible red veins across the face
- Dark black spots
Large patches of scaly skin called actinic keratosis can form on your skin if you repeatedly subject your skin to sunburn.
The lesions are itchy and create a burning sensation.
While they are not dangerous at this stage, they can easily develop into squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
The precancerous lesions must be removed with either freezing (cryotherapy), chemical peels, or photodynamic therapy.
The most dangerous consequence of sunburn on black skin is developing skin cancer.
While this isn’t likely after a single burn, continual and repeated exposure to harmful UV can greatly increase your chance of cancers.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is a common cancer that grows in the top layer of the skin.
It looks like a more severe version of a precancerous lesion, and often resembles a scaly red patch that oozes.
It can bleed or form a crust and grows very quickly. While it isn’t fatal, the cancer is very painful and can cause chronic inflammation and permanent scarring.
It is essential to remove squamous cell carcinoma with surgery or cauterization before it spreads. If untreated, it can impact many different parts of your body.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma is a malignant growth that can occur in the basal cells of the epidermis or in hair follicles.
It usually affects the head and the neck and can cause disfigurement and permanent scarring.
In lighter skinned people, basal cell carcinoma looks like a raised red patch.
However, on black skin it resembles a black growth with more of a translucent appearance.
You must undergo surgery or cauterization to remove this cancer from the skin.
Melanoma is the most aggressive and dangerous skin cancer that you can develop from sustained sunburns.
Although less than 1% of skin cancers are melanomas, they cause the most deaths.
It grows in the cells of the skin that produce melanin and looks like a black, brown, or red mark on the skin.
It spreads quickly through the body and needs invasive surgery to remove the entirety of the cancer.
It’s a little known fact, but you can actually get sunburn on your eyes too.
If your eyes aren’t protected from the UV light, it can inflame the cornea, which is the clear covering of your eye.
This can lead to cataracts, which obstruct your vision and can result in blindness. It can also reduce your central vision over time or lead to eyelid cancer.
Skin cancer: Blacks vs Whites
When it comes to skin cancer, statistically white people are more at risk than black people.
1 in 5 Americans will get skin cancer by age 70. For every 100,000 people, 22 Whites and 1 Black will develop skin cancer.
A 1995 study of skin cancer in Black Americans found that the top layer of black skin allows only 7.4% of UVA and 17.5% of UVB to penetrate the surface.
This is compared to white skin, which allows 24% and 55% respectively.
However, while white people are more likely to develop skin cancer, black people are more likely to die from it.
When looking at a 5-year survival rate after melanoma diagnosis, only 70% of black people will still be alive.
This is compared to 94% of white people who will survive.
Black Men Need to be aware
As a black man, you need to be aware that you are at a higher risk of dying from skin cancer.
This is because it is harder to identify skin cancers on black skin.
Skin cancers are often on hard-to-see places like the feet and legs.
They are also not as noticeable on dark skin, and may be misdiagnosed by doctors as warts or simple discolorations.
Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for 30-60% of the skin cancers in all POC.
It is mostly found in African Americans and Asian Indians.
It usually affects the legs and lower body, so unless you are regularly checking for skin spots, you may miss the warning signs.
Basal cell carcinoma is most commonly found in white people, but is 20-30% of the skin cancer in POC.
It is especially hard to identify on black skin because of the pigmentation, so often goes unnoticed and untreated.
Melanoma is the most dangerous skin cancer and the most likely to kill Blacks, Asians, and Latinos.
This aggressive cancer must be diagnosed early or else it is usually fatal.
Unfortunately, melanoma often grows on the soles of the feet and is not as noticeable on black skin.
In fact, 52% of black patients with melanoma don’t receive their first diagnosis until they are already in the late stages of the cancer.
It is essential that you are vigilant about sun protection and visiting the doctor regularly.
As a black man, you may also be at higher risk for skin cancer if you have suffered burn trauma, gone through radiation therapy, have albinism, have moles, or have a suppressed immune system.
What can you do to protect yourself from sunburn as a black man?
There are many things that you can do to prevent sunburn on black skin.
The most important methods are preventative, where you limit your exposure to UV radiation and use appropriate barrier methods.
Sunscreen is one of the most effective protections against sunburn on black skin.
Sunscreen works by absorbing and blocking UV rays from penetrating your skin.
It includes physical particles that block and reflect radiation, with chemicals that absorb rays and transform them into heat.
However, not all sunscreens are made equally.
You should choose a sunscreen that includes zinc oxide, avobenzone, or titanium oxide, to protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
You should use SPF30 as a minimum, but consider a higher rating if you are more prone to tanning.
You must apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you leave the house and reapply a fresh coat every 2 hours.
If you are exercising heavily or swimming, you will need to reapply more frequently because the liquid washes the sunscreen away.
Sunscreen can only be properly effective if you use it correctly, so take the time to apply it on every exposed part of your body. Don’t forget your ears, lips, and eyelids, either.
As a black man, you might be worried that sunscreen will leave a white sheen or chalky residue on your skin.
Luckily, there are many brands like Neutrogena and La Roche-Posay that blend easily and disappear into the skin.
There are various ways to protect against sunburn on black skin by using clothing.
You should use sunglasses with high UV protection and a brimmed hat of at least 3 inches that can shade your face and the back of your neck.
When it comes to clothing, these materials naturally block UV rays:
Dark clothing that is a heavier, non-stretch, and more densely woven also provides natural protection against sun damage.
You should avoid clothing that is light colored, loosely woven, stretchy, or wet, as it inefficiently blocks UV rays. You should also avoid these fabrics:
There is also specially-developed sun protective clothing that is treated with chemical dyes that block UVA and UVB rays.
This clothing protects against ultraviolet rays and at its highest rating of 50 allows only 2% of UV light to reach the skin.
You can make your own clothing resistant to UV by treating it with UV-blocking dyes, optical brightening agents, or UV-disrupting compounds.
Rit Sun Guard Laundry Treatment UV Protectant is an affordable and simple way to prevent sunburn on black skin.
An easy way to avoid sunburn is simply to stay out of the sun. Experts recommend avoiding exposure to the sun between the hours of 10am and 4pm.
You should also consult the daily UV index of your location and limit exposure on days of UV index 3 and higher.
What type of treatment can be used to treat skin post sunburn?
If the unfortunate happens and you get sunburnt, there are various treatments that you can use to alleviate the symptoms, reduce pain, and heal faster.
A cool bath or a shower is a great way to bring down your body temperature and relieve some of the hot feeling in your skin.
For extra healing properties, you can add natural ingredients to your bath.
Apple cider vinegar is a great option that balances the pH of your skin and helps it to heal faster. We recommend adding one cup to a cool bath.
Filling your bath with oatmeal is perfect if your skin is feeling hot and itchy. The natural properties of the common cereal soothe and cool the surface of your skin.
Either lavender or chamomile oil can alleviate stinging and reduce painful sensations. Just a few drops in the bath is enough to have an effect.
If irritation and redness are your main complaints, then putting 2 cups of baking soda in your bath is your best choice.
The traditional treatment for sunburn is aloe vera.
This magical plant contains a thick gel in its leaves that can naturally reduce inflammation and cool hot skin.
It contains a chemical called aloin that naturally reduces swelling and alleviates symptoms of burns.
Black tea is another excellent option. You can use the brewed leaves, tea bags, or liquid to relieve hotness from your sunburn and balance the pH of your skin.
Tea has tannic acid, which naturally draws heat away from the burn site.
If you want to reduce pain and swelling, lavender oil or witch hazel both work to alleviate discomfort.
Finally, if you prefer over-the-counter pharmacy products, you can use lidocaine as a topical anaesthetic or hydrocortisone cream for more severe sunburn cases.
While oral painkillers won’t affect the appearance of your sunburn, they can relieve associated symptoms like headache, high temperature, and general pain.
Ibuprofen and aspirin are the best options for treating discomfort from sunburn.
If you have suffered from severe sunburn, it is especially important to protect your skin while it heals.
Keep blisters dry and clean, and resist the urge to pop them.
You should also wear long clothing that covers all exposed skin until it has finished healing completely.
Summary: Sunburn on Black Skin
White people are more likely to get sunburn, but that doesn’t let you off the hook as a black man.
Black people are vulnerable to sunburn too and are actually statistically more likely to die from skin cancer.
Cancer shows differently on black skin and is often harder to detect, so it’s important to protect your skin with sunscreen, clothing, and staying in the shade.
If you do get sunburnt, there are thankfully many natural and pharmaceutical products you can use to alleviate symptoms.
However, as always, prevention is better than the cure.