I’ve often heard that people with brown skin don’t need to wear sunscreen because our melanin protects us from the sun.
But in a country like New Zealand, which has the highest rate of melanoma in the world, how far does that protection go?
‘I’m not sure if it's a myth, but [my melanin] is definitely helpful’
Joe Wallace, 18, has light brown skin and says he thinks his melanin protects him from sun damage.
He says his family don’t usually keep any sunscreen in the house.
Joe’s nan and sister have a much darker skin tone than him, but he says he’s never seen them wear sunscreen or get burnt.
“I’m not sure if it's a myth, but [my melanin] is definitely helpful,” Joe says.
Yes, people with brown skin can get sunburnt
Dr Sharad Paul is a skin cancer specialist, skin care developer and professor at the Auckland University of Technology.
Paul says yes, brown skin can get sunburnt. It’s just less likely to burn than Pākehā skin.
Different skin tones have different burn times
Your “burn time” is the amount of time you can spend in the sun without sunscreen before getting burned.
The Fitzpatrick classification - a phototyping scale that helps classify skin by its reaction to sunlight exposure - identifies six skin types that each have different burn times.
Dr Paul describes each type with the following characteristics:
Type 1 = white skin with ginger hair
Type 2 = white skin with blond hair and blue eyes
Type 3 = dark haired Europeans, light skinned East Asians
Type 4 = light skinned South Asians, South Americans, dark skinned East Asians
Type 5 = dark skinned South Asians
Type 6 = dark skinned Africans
These skin types aren’t all encompassing but they can help you get an idea of how much sun exposure your skin can withstand.
To calculate the burn time of Type 1 skin, look up the UV index forecast for that day in your area and divide 67 minutes by it.
That number changes to 100 minutes for Type 2, 200 minutes for Type 3 and 300 minutes for Type 4.
Paul says Type 5 and 6 don’t typically get burned unless they have an underlying skin condition.
The day I wrote this article, it was 16.5C in Wellington and the UV index peaked at nine, which NIWA classifies as ‘very high’.
I have Type 4 skin and I wasn’t wearing any sunscreen when I went outside for lunch that day, which means I theoretically could have had 33 minutes of sun exposure before getting burned.
Paul says my burn time is long because Type 4 skin has a natural SPF of two.
‘We know the benefits [of sunscreen] but we don't prioritise it’
Margaret Maoate, 53, has olive skin but doesn’t think it protects her from sun damage.
She wears Cancer Society-approved sunscreen with a 50+ SPF but only on her face “in the height of summer”.
“I think as people get older, it's not a priority. We know the benefits [of sunscreen] but we don't prioritise it,” Margaret says.
Margaret says her family enforce wearing sunscreen on their kids and make sure they wear hats when outside.
She says New Zealand schools often have a ‘no hat = no play’ rule, where kids who want to play in the sun need to wear a sunhat.
‘Me and my boys have always thought we’re black enough’
Tom Fuimaono, 25, says he wears sunscreen only around the summer period, often putting it on after it's “too late” and he’s already spent time in the sun.
“Me and my boys have always thought we’re black enough,” Tom says.
Like Margaret’s family, the kids in Tom’s family are the ones to wear sunscreen.
“If one person brings it out, then there’s a ripple effect and everyone puts some on,” Tom says.
New Zealand has harsher UV sunlight than other warmer countries
Despite coming from hotter countries closer to the equator, brown migrants have a higher risk of getting sunburnt in New Zealand than in their countries of origin.
Paul says UV radiation is greater the closer you get to the poles.
While the North Pole is mostly water which absorbs UV, Paul says, the South Pole is mostly ice and mountainous regions which reflect UV and make the sunlight harsher in New Zealand.
On top of that, New Zealand’s ozone layer thins over summer, providing less protection from UV sunlight when we need it the most.
In comparison, Asian and African countries have a thicker ozone layer and more air pollution than New Zealand.
Airborne pollution acts like a filter, scattering UV rays and partially preventing them from reaching the ground.
Brown people living in densely populated areas “could get an additional SPF of 10 from the pollution” in the air, Paul says.
Don’t ditch the sunscreen
While brown skin is less likely to get burnt than white skin, that does not mean brown people should ditch sunscreen.
Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before exposure to the sun.
It’s also crucial to reapply throughout the day, especially if you’re sweating or getting in the water.
To cover your whole body, you need around 30 ml of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, says Paul.
Paul says the reason people still get burnt while wearing sunscreen is improper application and improper products.
SPF 15 gives 93% protection against UV rays, SPF 30 gives 97% and SPF 50 gives 98%. The differences are very slim.
Paul says SPF 15-30 is usually enough to protect brown skin.
Many sunscreens leave a white cast on brown skin
The white cast that sunscreen leaves on my skin makes me look like I’m wearing the wrong shade of foundation – a problem my Pākehā friends don’t seem to have.
Paul says that mineral sunscreens are made of titanium or zinc, the latter of which is white in colour.
Mineral sunscreens can be more whitening than chemical sunscreens but Paul says they can be properly formulated to not leave a white cast.
He prefers mineral sunscreens to chemical ones because they are more long lasting, forming a barrier that reflects UV radiation away rather than absorbing it.
I’ve only ever found two sunscreens that don’t change the colour of my face, one of which I was allergic to.
The other costs me $49 for a 75g bottle from Mecca, making it the most expensive skincare product I own by a long shot.
Brown people can still experience sun damage
Paul says brown people can get melanoma in unexpected areas.
“Melanoma can start at the nail bed, which is darker in colour, and can streak up the nail over time,” Paul says.
Brown people can also get melanoma in the eye because our eyes are dark.
Symptoms can include decreased vision and dark patches on the white of the eye.
Paul says eye melanoma is usually spotted during routine eye check ups.
He recommends wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays, which can also cause cataracts.
Sun exposure can also cause ageing, pigmentation and redness in brown skin.
“Never in my practice have I met someone who wants to look older faster,” Paul says.
No matter what your skin colour is, Paul says: “In high UV index places like NZ, you should wear hats and sunglasses, cover up with clothes, seek shade, and wear sunscreen.”
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