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Choosing the Right Sun Protection for Your Skin Type

Sunscreen is important for everyone. But when it comes to choosing a sunscreen, your skin tone can make a difference. You want the right type of sunscreen to reduce your exposure to the sun’s dangerous UV rays and help protect you from sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer

Different skin types react differently when they are exposed to the sun’s rays. For example, fair skin usually burns easily, a light brown complexion can hide potential sun damage and darker skin may still become damaged. 

When you understand how to target sun protection to your skin tone, you can enjoy being outdoors and help keep your skin safe and healthy. We talked to Jordan Abbott, MD, a dermatologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, about the right ways to protect your skin from the sun no matter your complexion. 

What to know if you have pale or fair skin 

Fair skin has less melanin (skin pigment) that provides some protection against UV radiation. So if you have light skin, you’re more likely to get freckles, sun damage and sunburn. And you’re at higher risk for skin cancer. If you have fair skin, talk to your doctor and get an annual skin screening exam.  

What to know if you have light brown skin 

Light brown skin has more melanin than fair skin, so you have some natural protection against sun damage. But that could give you a false sense of security. You’re still at risk for skin damage, premature aging and skin cancer.  

What to know if you have dark brown or Black skin 

It’s a myth that dark brown or Black skin is immune from UV damage and skin cancer. While dark brown or Black skin has the most melanin, sun exposure can still cause discoloration, premature aging and damage.  

Protecting dark skin from the sun is important. “People with darker skin may find that a tinted sunscreen blends in better,” Dr. Abbott said.  

If you have darker skin, keep an eye on scars, burns, chronic wounds and the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. “People with more melanin in their skin are more likely to develop skin cancers in those areas,” she said.  

What to know if you have skin sensitivities 

Here are a couple of tips if you need special skin care: 

  • If you have dry skin, you may want to try a cream-based sunscreen with added moisturizers.  
  • If your pores clog easily, try using lightweight, non-comedogenic products (formulated specifically not to cause blocked pores). 

How to reduce your risk of damage from sun exposure 

Dr. Abbott recommends these strategies to reduce UV exposure for everyone, no matter your skin tone: 

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that’s water-resistant and has an SPF of 30 or more. It’s OK to choose high SPFs, but keep in mind that the difference in protection between an SPF of 30 and 50 is relatively small.  
  • Apply one to one-and-a-half ounces — about the amount that would fit in a shot glass — to give your skin the protection it needs.  
  • Sunscreen will only protect you for a little while – and there is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after your skin gets wet from swimming or sweating. 
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses that block UV rays and UV-protective clothing. 
  • Seek shade when you’re out in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest. 

Check your skin for signs of problems 

Even when you protect your skin from the sun as well as you can, there’s still a chance you could have sun damage or other issues. Look over your skin once a month to check for new or changing moles or freckles. Use a mirror or have a partner check places that are hard to see. Be sure to check the bottoms of your feet and between your toes. 

You should have your skin checked by a health care provider if you notice a spot that is changing quickly on your skin. Signs to watch for are: 

  • An increase in size 
  • Multiple colors 
  • An irregular border on a mole or spot 
  • A spot that is bleeding 

If you have a lot of moles or a history of skin cancer for yourself or your family, you may want to see a dermatologist regularly. Skin cancer is usually easier to treat if you spot it early. 

“While skin cancer is less common in dark-skinned people, it is often detected at a later stage than in people with fairer skin. That can lead to worse outcomes,” Dr. Abbott said. “Skin cancer awareness – regardless of skin tone – is important.” 

The bottom line 

Whether you have fair skin, lighter brown skin or darker skin, protecting your skin from the sun’s rays and watching for signs of sun damage and skin cancer are important. While darker skin may have some natural protection against UV damage, there’s no guarantee that the sun won’t harm your skin. 

If you would like to connect with a dermatologist who can recommend the best sun protection plan for your complexion and skin type, reach out to an expert at Banner Health

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