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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Why don't dark-skinned people get sunburns?

Category: Health      Published: August 19, 2013

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Dark-skinned people do get sunburns. While it's true that the higher pigment levels that make certain people's skin look dark helps protect against sunlight, the pigments do not block 100% of the light. The skin pigment melanin is produced by special skin cells called melanocytes to protect the body from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. Higher levels of melanin means less sunburn and less skin cancer. But even the darkest-skinned person is not protected 100% from sunlight. A 2010 CDC study found that 13% of black women and 9% of black men reported getting at least one sunburn in the past year. Furthermore, 38% of Hispanic women and 32% of Hispanic men reported getting at least one sunburn in the past year. For comparison purposes, the average value across all ethnicities and genders was 50.1%. While dark-skinned people definitely get fewer sunburns, they still get them. When a dark-skinned person gets a sunburn, it may not be visually noticeable, but the damage is still there. A dark-skinned person with a sunburn still experiences the skin tightness, pain, sensitivity, heat, and peeling that light-skinned people experience.

Because dark-skinned people get sunburns, they also get skin cancer from sun exposure. The rates of skin cancer for dark-skinned people are far below that of light-skinned people, but the rates are not zero. Another CDC study found that about 1 in every 100,000 black people gets skin melanomas each year and about 4 in every 100,000 Hispanic people get skin melanomas each year. Dark-skinned people have a higher chance of getting skin cancer from sun exposure than of winning the lottery. But, unlike the lottery, dark-skinned people have a way to drastically alter their odds. Sunscreen protects dark skin against sunlight damage just as well as it protects light skin. About 1 in every 200,000 black people dies from skin cancer each year and 2 in every 200,000 Hispanic people die from skin cancer each year. For comparison purposes, about 6 in every 200,000 white people die from skin cancer each year.

Topics: Hispanic, black, cancer, dark-skinned, melanin, skin, skin cancer, sunburn, ultraviolet