Last Updated on February 27, 2023
It doesn’t matter if you’re fair-skinned or dark-skinned – *anybody* can get burned. It’s how to prevent it from happening that matters. Here’s everything you need to know about sunburn on black skin.
- Dark skin can get sunburn
- How and why sunburn happens
- The long-term effects of sunburn on dark skin
- How to detect sunburn on dark skin
- What to do if you’ve been sunburned
- How to prevent sunburn on dark skin
- Final thoughts
Blasting Usher’s ‘Let It Burn’ on a cruisy drive outdoors with the sun glistening against your gorgeous melanin skin is fun. An actual burn? Not so much.
Unfortunately, although rare, it can happen. In this article, you’ll find out why and how it happens, and how to treat and prevent future sunburn on dark skin. But first, let’s debunk the myth as old as time that black people don’t get sunburned. Fact check: We do!
It’s true that the darker you are, the less likely you are to experience sunburn. However, just because dark-skinned people burn less than their fairer counterpart doesn’t mean that they don’t burn.
A U.K research published in the International Journal of Dermatology showed that two-thirds of all black respondents living in the U.K had never been sunburned. However, the same research reported that most black respondents that lived in South Africa and Nigeria had in fact been sunburned in the past.
Also, a more recent study published in the Clinical Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology found that over half of all respondents of African descent had been sunburned before. Another study published in JAMA Dermatology found that having sensitive skin made you more likely to get burned, whether you’re dark-skinned or not.
So, in short, although dark-skinned people may be less likely to burn compared to light-skinned people, a lot of dark-skinned people still burn. Moreover, being dark-skinned with sensitive skin increases your chances at getting sunburned.
If you’re black and have been sunburned before, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to write to us and tell us how it happened and how it felt.
So, How And Why Does Sunburn Happen?
Simply put, sunburn is a result of excessive Ultraviolet (UV) rays hitting your skin. It usually occurs after spending some time in the sun. When this happens, the body releases chemicals that expand blood vessels. This causes a fluid leakage which then causes the skin to inflame. This reaction is what we call sunburn.
The fairer your skin, the quicker it may burn. Also, the hotter the UV index of the day, the more likely for skin to burn when exposed to it.
What is UV index?
According to the The United States’ Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), the index “predicts the level of solar UV radiation and indicates the risk of overexposure on a scale from 0 (low) to 11 or more (extremely high).” The higher the UV index, the higher the UV rays and the more likely you risk getting sun damage when exposed to the sun.
Dark-skinned individuals typically have a natural SPF of up to 13.3 and thus, they may burn slower. This natural SPF is called ‘eumelanin’ – one of the two forms of melanin pigments in the uttermost layer of the skin which protects us from UV rays.
However, eumelanin can’t completely shield you from the sun, hence why prolonged exposure to it can eventually lead to sunburn.
Unfortunately, UV rays are very dangerous to our skin. Although our body can heal itself, there can be irreversible damage to our skin cells beyond the epidermis.
The burn itself may be short-lived, but sunburn can cause hyperpigmentation, accelerated aging, and permanent damage to skin cells.
Whilst burned skin may peel off to reveal new skin, the cells underneath that new skin may have already formed free radicals from UV rays.
What are free radicals?
Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are free-floating in the body without an electron. The molecules in our body should ideally share equal numbers of electrons. But sometimes, outside influence such as “x-rays, ozone, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and industrial chemicals” (Source) can throw this off balance, leaving unpaired electrons. These form free radicals which becomes dangerous if the body can’t regulate them. They then start to attack cells which results into ‘oxidative stress’. Oxidative stress causes various health issues.
Free radicals are a no-no when it comes to our body. When the cells are in oxidative stress mode, this can lead to changes in our DNA, lipid structures, and proteins. This cellular damage is a pathway to the formation of health issues, one of which can be skin cancer.
Sun exposure is a source of free radicals. As a result, prolonged exposure can lead to cancer that appears in melanoma form (the most aggressive) or non-melanoma forms, namely basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The CDC’s 2018 Cancer Statistics report shows that doctors diagnose 1 in every 100,000 black people with melanoma annually. Ironically, melanoma in black people occur in areas we don’t often expose to the sun! That demonstrates the power of free radicals in the blood stream.
To make matters worse, a study published in The Journal of American Academy of Dermatology found that skin cancer is not commonly diagnosed in people of color in time. This makes it much harder to treat which consequently reduces the chances of survival.
And then there’s hyperpigmentation and accelerated aging.
Hyperpigmentation is one of the most common issues black people deal with regularly. Hyperpigmentation occurs when your melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin) go into overdrive. It’s often a result of inflammation or other skin trauma. As such, sunburn – which is technically inflammation – can lead to darkened skin.
That’s why you may notice that you get darker in summer as opposed to winter – it’s the sun! If care is not taken, with time, frequent sun exposure will eventually cause dark spots to appear on the skin. This is what we commonly refer to as ‘age spots’. This brings us to our final point – the effect of the sun on aging.
Exposure to the sun can accelerate aging. We’ve heard the phrase ‘black don’t crack’. Fact check: it can and it does–unless you take steps to prevent it. Sure, it may take way longer to see wrinkles and fine lines appear on melanated skin. But, they can appear earlier than they should if you frequently absorb UV rays without protection.
Don’t just take our word for it. According to board-certified dermatologist and director of Skin of Color Center at New York City’s Mount Sinai, Andrew Alexis (M.D, MPH):
‘Delayed’ is the keyword here. Sunburn being an immediate reaction to UVB rays will not cause you to age faster. However, sun exposure from UVA rays eventually will. How? From free radicals. Board-certified dermatologist from Art of Dermatology New York, Jessica Krant (M.D) says:
This is all the more reason why it’s better to practice sun safety now rather than later when the damage is done. But before we talk about the practices to start today, how can you even tell you’ve been sunburned?
How To Detect Sunburn On Dark Skin
Of course, it’s as easy as A.B.C to tell if a fair-skinned person has just been burned. Besides seeing them desperately smear a handful of Aloe Vera gel all over their skin, you can visibly see red. Yet, on dark skin, the mission to spot sunburn is hard. So, if you’ve unfortunately been
kissed smothered by the sun, here are a few tell signs to look out for:
- Your skin feels hot
- It might feel tight
- It feels a little sensitive or painful to touch
- The site might be itchy
- It may feel dry or cracked
- It may swell
- Noticeable darkening of the skin tone
- The skin around the site starts to peel over the days following the burn
In the likely event that you tick some of the above after exposure to sunlight, you’ve been burned. So, here’s what you should do to treat it.
What To Do If You’ve Been Sunburned
1. Avoid sun exposure
Your first course of action is to not re-expose the burned site to the sun while it heals. If you do, it’ll only cause further damage to an already-fragile skin. If you must go out, make sure you stay covered up.
2. Use the appropriate skincare
Gently apply clean skincare that’s meant to sooth the skin, reduce irritation, hydrate, and reduce inflammation. Aloe Vera gel is usually the first thing many people pick up. This is no surprise as Aloe Vera is essentially a cooling and hydrating agent. Not only that, but it can also help protect the site from infection thanks to its polyphenol compounds (antioxidants).
Antioxidants are highly effective at fighting the free radicals that UV rays forms in the skin. As a result, dermatologists recommend skincare rich in vitamins C and E for after-sun care. Here are some top picks depending on the texture that you prefer (mist, gel, lotion, oil).
BEST AFTER-SUN MIST
KINLO HYDRATING GOLDEN MIST 2fl. oz (59ml)
This cooling mist by tennis star Naomi Osaka refreshes and repairs the skin after sun exposure. Star ingredients include Aloe Vera, Calendula, and Hemp Seed Oil to sooth, hydrate and brighten.
BEST AFTER-SUN ALOE-VERA GEL
SUNBURNT AFTER-SUN GEL 6fl. oz (177ml)
A safer alternative to lidocaine, this 5-star sunburn care gel work to sooth and moisturize burned skin. The Aloe Vera gel spreads smoothly to prevent irritation. It also contains Calendula, Echinacea and Hyaluronic Acid for optimal hydration.
BEST AFTER-SUN LOTION
BURT’S BEES AFTER SUN SOOTHER 6fl. oz (177ml)
This natural dermatologist-recommended lotion harnesses the power of Coconut Oil alongside Aloe Vera to heal sunburn. It has 6,000+ 5-star reviews on Amazon with before and after pictures to prove its effectiveness.
BEST VITAMIN E OIL
REJUVE NATURALS 100% VITAMIN E OIL 1fl. oz (30ml)
The natural oil is derived from organic olives rather than sunflowers. As a result, it’s less sticky than some other Vitamin E oils and the skin absorbs it quickly. It’ll accelerate the healing process after sunburn. It’ll also help to reduce any hyperpigmentation that ensues.
3. At-home sunburn treatments
- In the absence of skincare, cut slices of Cucumber and apply it to the site. It provides similar effects to Aloe Vera.
- Sun exposure can cause dehydration, so ensure you regularly drink water. It’ll help hydrate your skin, including the cells around the site.
- Take a cool shower or apply cool compresses on the site with a clean cloth. Always keep the area clean to prevent infection.
- When you do shower, don’t use soap with fragrances, synthetic ingredients, or drying agents like sulfates. If in doubt, just use water.
- Wear loose clothing to allow the site to breathe.
- This is not a treatment but more of a warning: resist the urge to peel or pop any blisters that show up!
4. Seek medical advice
If the burned skin appears to not be healing itself or you’re having severe reactions, please see a medical practitioner. Severe reactions include headaches, aches, vomiting, dizziness or fever.
Also, if you’ve been sunburned more often than you can remember in the past, please make an appointment with a dermatologist PRONTO. Explain the situation and let them examine your skin to rule out any possibilities of skin damage or cancer. Regardless of past exposure, derms generally advise to get skin checks every year.
How To Prevent Sunburn on Black Skin
1. Daily use of broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30
Broad Spectrum means UVA and UVB combined protection. Dermatologists suggest black people wear mineral (also known as physical) sunscreens as it offers optimal protection. These typically have Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Oxide in them to provide broad spectrum protection.
You should always wear SPF even when the sun isn’t out, as the rays can still penetrate the clouds. Also, remember to apply it in areas beyond the face that you still expose to the sun. These often include the back of your neck, ears, lips, décolletage, lower leg area, and the back of your hands. If you’re worried about sunscreen leaving a white cast, check out our curated list of black-owned sunscreens that won’t leave a white cast.
Also, don’t forget that sunscreen do wear off, hence why many skin experts say to generally reapply it every two hours.
BEST LIP SPF
ELEVEN BY VENUS WILLIAMS PERFECT FORM LIP BALM SPF 15 0.34fl. oz (10ml)
Formulated with 20% zinc oxide, this tinted lip balm protects your lips from darkening. It also contains Shea Butter and Bayberry Fruit Wax to soften and moisturize.
2. Protective clothing
We know this one is a little harder to follow in summertime as we often prefer to wear minimal or lightweight clothing. However, you can wear minimal clothing and still protect yourself. This can include:
- Stylish oversized hats or face caps when out and about
- Dark tops and bottoms (the darker, the better)
- Polyester or rayon-made clothing
- Wool and denim
- UPF-rated clothes made specifically to protect you from the sun
Protective clothing doesn’t stop at actual clothing but also includes sunglasses and other measures like car sun shields. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the best sunshades are sturdy, have wide lenses, and have between 99% to 100% UV protection. High quality sunshades rated UV400 are a great choice that, although expensive, are worth the investment!
MOST STYLISH UV400 SUNSHADE
BÔHTEN ARISTOTLE GOLD ROSEWOOD SUN UV400
This is an eco-friendly choice that’s super stylish and timeless. It’s made from reclaimed rosewood and tortoise actate. It also looks great on different face shapes. Bôhten is proudly black-owned.
3. Stay shaded between late mornings to late afternoons
It’s very tempting to want to enjoy the afternoons outside, especially post-lockdowns. Whether it’s running errands, doing sports, or hanging with friends at the beach, there’s always a reason to step outside. After all, we’re primitively social animals!
However, late mornings to late afternoons are usually when the UV index is at its highest. Plus, research has shown that people who are frequently outdoor have a higher chance of sunburn than those who aren’t. So, it’s very important to stay alert. Try to limit your sun exposure in the afternoons. And if there’s no other choice, be sure to wear sunscreen, protective clothing and embrace the shade wherever possible.
4. Eat foods and use skincare high in antioxidants
We’ve briefly touched on antioxidants in sun care, so let’s talk about food. Many dermatology-based studies prove that foods high in antioxidants can effectively add a layer of UV protection to the skin.
Specifically, studies find that vitamins C and E work in synergy to reduce sunburn reaction. Also, according to Medscape, selenium is another antioxidant powerhouse that prevents cell damage. In addition, a study published in the Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity shows that plant-derived polyphenols effectively protect the skin from long-term UV damage.
Therefore, eat antioxidant-rich foods that can provide added UV protection, including:
- Fruits, particularly berries, cherries, lychees
- Vegetables, including spinach, tomatoes, broccoli
- Teas, especially green tea
- Nuts and seeds, particularly Brazilian nuts
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese proverb
Sunburn can happen to anyone regardless of skin color. Sunburn on black skin is even less obvious than on its fairer counterparts. However, it’s equally as dangerous on dark skin as it is on white skin.
The effects of sunburn on the skin can be both immediate and long-term. So, whether you already practice sun safety or just slowly building the routine, it’s important to always protect yourself against UV rays.
By the way, did you count how many times we repeated ‘sunburn’ in this article? 37 times! It only goes to show how important sun safety really is and how seriously we should all take it.
How long will my sunburn take to clear up?
Sunburnt skin will start to peel and usually clear within a week as new skin grows. For severe cases, please see a doctor asap.
What happens if you get sunburn on top of sunburn?
The same reactions that happened the first time will happen. It’ll likely be more painful too as your already-inflamed skin is even more damaged. So, make sure this doesn’t happen!
Can you get sunburn without going outside?
It’s possible. It can depend on how high the UV index is on that day. Moreover, although UVB can’t completely penetrate windows, UVA can. Therefore, it’s better to wear sunscreen everyday.
Does vitamin C serum make skin more sensitive to the sun?
Not necessarily. It’s an antioxidant that can actually prevent sun damage. However, very potent vitamin C does react to light. So, again, it’s best to wear SPF on top of your skincare before heading out.
Will retinol make my skin more sensitive to the sun?
Yes, but only in the sense that if you’re new to retinol, your skin will be more sensitive to the sun. Whereas, if your skin has adapted to retinol, using it in your morning routine will not cause a UV reaction. However, UV rays are known to decrease retinol’s effectiveness. So, it’s best to use retinol as a night-time treatment to gain all its benefits.