Practicing Safe Sun?

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Why Sunscreen?

Darker and olive skins are just as vulnerable as lighter skin tones to the “ravages” of solar radiation known as sun damage. Sun damage produces many “looks” including chronic sunburn, redness and spider veins, deep wrinkles and fine lines, sagging skin, a rough, leathery skin, hyperpigmentation (uneven skin tone, dark spots and hormonal patches called melasma), pre-cancerous lesions known as keratoses and skin cancers, including the often fatal melanoma.

Denial = Sun Damage

Often, people of color will tell me: “I’m not trying to get darker”; “I’m dark, so I don’t need sunscreen”; “The melanin in black skin is enough protection”; “I’m never out in the sun” or “I never burn”. The sad truth: All intermittent day-to-day sun exposure has a cumulative effect and discolors the skin tone, roughens the texture and damages the underlying structure of the skin itself. Casual sun exposure, like riding on a bus, driving a car, running, walking or gardening, is the most damaging sun because it occurs on a daily basis over a long period of time.

Depleted Ozone Layer

The realities of diminished ozone and global warming have been well-publicized. Most people in developed countries are well aware of the need to protect their skin and their children’s skin from the sun, though most still don’t make it a priority. Before going into the sun, even for a short time, full-spectrum sunscreen needs to be applied generously to all exposed skin. Then, it must be reapplied often, even when exposed to indirect sun, and also after swimming, exercising, perspiring and rubbing with a towel.

False Sense of Security

Products claim to be waterproof, but under most conditions most don’t last, so it’s important to reapply as often as every hour when exposed to continuous direct sun. Sun protection factors (SPF) are numbers that indicate how long the skin can be exposed to UVB rays before “burning and reddening” occurs, so don’t rely on a waterproof SPF 70 sunscreen to protect you during six hours of continuous sun or even against the subtle, deeper-penetrating UVA rays on overcast days. Windows and cloudy skies won’t protect your skin from sun damage.

Fooled by Overcast Skies?

That glare that causes us to squint on overcast days just confirms the presence of the longer UVA rays. It’s these skin darkening, cancer-causing rays that penetrate the cloud layer and car windows, causing the most sun damage. The skin and eye area will darken and become uneven and blotchy, flesh moles will surface, freckles will multiply, and skin cancers can form. Even brief sun exposure can cause a rough, swollen itchy rash called photo-dermatitis if one is naturally sensitive to the sun, suffers from an auto-immune disease, or is taking one or more sun-sensitizing medications.

Don’t Neglect Your Body

Don’t neglect the backs of your hands, forearms, shoulders, chest, ears or neck, as these areas darken quickly, especially on the “driver side.” Wear gloves to protect your hands when washing dishes, gardening and doing household chores and apply sunscreen religiously. Chemically-irritated hands exposed to the sun can result in unattractive pigmentary changes, rough texture and aging.

Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens contain micronized titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide and provide more immediate protection from both UVA and UVB rays by reflecting and bouncing harmful rays away from the skin.

Advantages: Most are fragrance-free and calming, and an excellent choice for sensitive, inflamed and irritated skin, provide better protection against UVA rays, and don’t burn your eyes when you perspire.

Drawback: Some products don’t appear sheer (at first) and must be massaged gently into the skin with the heel of the hand to prevent that “whitish” or “purplish” haze. This process takes an extra minute at most, and the effort is well worth it. Many professional skin care offices and spas carry sheer physical sunscreens that give the skin a matte finish without a cloudy haze or oily residue. If a product seems heavy and too chalky at first, take the time to massage it all the way in using a gentle but firm massage motion.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, prevent UV rays from penetrating with a chemical barrier. They must absorb completely to be effective, and a generous amount must be applied to all exposed skin no less than 20 minutes before sun exposure. Chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, benzophenones, oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, homosalate, PABA, padimate O and others.

Advantages: Chemical sunscreens are inexpensive, readily available in both dry and moisturizing formulas and look sheer the minute they’re applied, an advantage when one has very dark skin.

Drawbacks: They can be greasy and contain pore-clogging tropical oils and sun-reactive fragrances and can cause the eyes to sting. Many high-SPF products lack the key ingredients to fully protect the skin against the longer UVA rays since the SPF levels only measure protection against UVB rays. And, since they must be applied way before sun exposure, the necessary “wait time” can be problematic for those facing time constraints. There will be gaps in true sun protection while exposed to continuous direct sun. All sunscreens must be re-applied after swimming, perspiring and/or rubbing with a towel, and it takes at least 20 minutes for chemical sunscreens to begin working again. Experts are now recommending that these sunscreens be reapplied every 20 minutes when in direct sun.

How to choose? Your sunblock should be “user-friendly” and be appropriate for your skin sensitivity, sensitivity to sun, skin type, lifestyle (always in a rush?) and the product’s potential to aggravate acne and irritate the sensitive eye area. Some products discourage daily compliance because of greasiness, chalky texture or eye irritation. Oily and acne prone skin require a water-based, oil-free formulation. People with sensitive skin should stick to the new generation of sheer, chemical-free, unscented zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide products. Those with very dark skin who aren’t sun sensitive or prone to hyperpigmentation, and don’t take medication, can use chemical sunscreens over SPF 30 that contains avobenzone, but they must apply 20 to 30 minutes before exposure to the sun and reapply hourly.

Words of Caution

Many sunscreens contain ingredients that can cause stinging, clogging, sensitivity and allergic reactions on sensitive skin. High levels of chemical sunscreen ingredients and fragrances have more potential to cause rashes and irritate the skin, especially in the eye area on allergy sufferers due to tearing and rubbing, and when using topical or systemic retinoids, including tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, retinyl propionate, retinol, and isotretinoin.

If you’re an athlete, have sensitive skin, are sun-sensitive for any reason, are pregnant, taking medication or hormones, work outdoors and/or perspire a lot, avoid the chemical sunscreens altogether. Instead, use fragrance-free sun care products that contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.

Protect Your Eyes & Lips

Wear UV-protective eyewear when outdoors for any length of time to prevent dark circles and sun damage around the eyes. These days, most sunglasses provide UV protection. Sunglasses must be large enough to cover the entire orbital eye area. While prescription “transition” lenses darken in direct sunlight, they may not darken sufficiently while driving or riding in a car or bus, and are often too small to adequately cover the eye area. Athletes who can’t wear sunglasses while participating in their sport do best with the micronized, chemical-free physical sun products, which won’t sting when perspiration runs into the eyes. There are many lip products available that contain full-spectrum protection, so choose one that’s fragrance-free with an SPF of 30 or more. Apply a generous amount daily and reapply often. In addition to preventing sunburn and sun damage, they help fade lip discoloration and prevent cold sores, which often flare after direct sun exposure.

Make-up with SPF

Cream and liquid make-up products that contain sunscreens usually provide too little UV protection, block only the UVB “burning” rays, not the UVA “browning” rays and don’t address areas where make-isn’t applied, like the neck, ears, check, arms and hands. Get a full-spectrum stand-alone sunscreen with UVA blockers (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or avobenzone) to protect your skin before you apply make-up.

Powdered mineral foundations contain chemical-free sunscreen ingredients and pigment. But because the coverage is too diffuse and uneven, the skin can be vulnerable to sun damage

Hint: Apply sunscreen 10-15 minutes before make-up. Choose and ‘fine tune’ make-up color choices in natural filtered daylight, not in artificial light or direct sunlight. Re-evaluate foundation and powder colors often if you’ve been getting skin peels and/or using skin brighteners. For a natural look, take the time to find the right shade and use a light touch. Practice until you get it right, blending carefully into the neck, temples, smile lines and hairline.


Many factors cause sun-sensitivity: Many people are naturally sun-sensitive, regardless of skin sensitivity, ethnicity or a dark skin tone. Common causes include: Pregnancy, oral contraceptives, fertility drugs, hormone-containing devices like Mirena® and Nuvaring®, birth control implants, hormonal imbalances, oral antibiotics, blood pressure meds, diuretics, oral anti-diabetic drugs, Accutane® (isotretinoin), Retin A®, Differin®, TriLuma®, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, retinyl propionate, retinol, antihistamines, chemical peeling, dermabrasion, microdermabrasion, laser resurfacing, dehydration, medical conditions (most auto-immune diseases including lupus, scleroderma, vitiligo, RA, sarcoidosis, etc), kidney disease, obesity, weight gain, allergies, product overuse, friction and over-scrubbing can cause sun-sensitivity on virtually anyone.

Warning: Sun-sensitivity leads to sun damage, a worsening of pigmentation problems, especially on people of color and women who are pregnant, taking medications, hormones or using hormone-containing devices. Those who are naturally sun-sensitive already recognize the fact that they can’t tolerate the sun. Only five minutes in the sun for a photo-sensitive person can be as hard-hitting and damaging as three hours in that very same sun for someone else.

Protect Your Skin for Life

Sunscreen use can be dangerous for some people because they prolong their sun exposure, believing they’re safe from sun damage because of one light application. Avoid all unnecessary sun exposure and avoid exposure between 10 am and after 4 pm whenever possible. Apply and reapply a potent full-spectrum sunblock religiously, even on overcast days. Make it a daily habit and be sure to apply enough sun protection to do the job. If you protect your face, neck, chest, forearms arms and hands correctly, a four-ounce bottle of sunscreen shouldn’t last longer than about two months. Remember, it’s better to be safe than “uneven-toned” or worse.

Individual results may vary and require compliance to corrective home care products, diligent sun protection, professional treatments, and important lifestyle changes, all of which must be monitored and maintained on a long-term basis.

© 2019 Kathryn Khadija Leverette and

The material on this website is provided for educational purposes only and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


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