In February, a Black mother on Reddit complained that her eight-year-old child who attended a daycare after school program was allegedly denied sunscreen and subsequently arrived home with a sunburn. After speaking to the teachers, she discovered that the director instructed the teachers to not put sunscreen on the Black children at the center because they have “natural protection built into their skin.” The director told the mother to get a doctor’s note if she wanted the teachers to put sunscreen on her child. Then during a recent field trip the mother found out that the teachers made the Black children sit in the sun and instructed the white children to sit in the shade because of the same belief that Black skin is not susceptible to skin cancer. — Whoo-sah!
In the past, beliefs like the ones held by these teachers and the day care administrator, caused a ton of cruel experiments in medicine to be justified on Black bodies. It was once thought by doctors that Black women did not feel pain in their genitalia and they conducted cruel, inhumane, and painful experiments on these women without any anesthesia. These very same beliefs that the teachers and director upheld often keep Black people from being diagnosed for skin cancer in a timely manner or for the doctors to even take the initiative to request a full body scan of their Black patients. By the time we realize it might be skin cancer, the tumor is often larger, more advanced, and deadlier leading Black people to have a higher death rate from skin cancer than whites. See the inherent problem here? These beliefs hurt people, in this case, children.
wait! Let’s Talk About Skin Cancer
Dr. Lily Adelzadeh, M.D., explained why Black children need sunscreen by describing the types of skin cancers that affect the Black community.
Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the United States and represents 35–45 percent of all cancers in Caucasians but just one-to-two percent in Black people. The low incidence of skin cancers in the Black community is due to the photo-protection provided by increased epidermal melanin, which filters twice as much ultraviolet radiation (UV) as does that in Caucasians. Therefore, UV radiation plays a lesser role in people of color. However, to say that there is no role in UV radiation in Black people is not true, especially when it comes to a specific type of skin cancer, called basal cell carcinoma. There are three main types of skin cancers found in all racial groups: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
“…to say that there is no role in UV radiation in Black people is not true, especially when it comes to a specific type of skin cancer, called basal cell carcinoma.”
– Dr. Lily Adelzadeh, M.D.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). The most common skin cancer in Black people is squamous cell carcinoma. Predisposing factors for SCC in people of color include scars from thermal and chemical burns, chronic ulcers, previous sites of radiation, and the human papillomavirus. People of color develop SCC predominantly in areas infrequently exposed to the sun, in contrast to Caucasians, who develop them in chronically sun-exposed skin.
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC). BCC is the second most common skin cancer in Black people, while it is the most common type of skin cancer in Caucasians, Asians and Hispanics. Sun exposure is the greatest risk factor for development of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) across all racial groups, including Black people. BCC typically occurs on the head and neck region, where there is more sun exposure. By using sun protection, you decrease your risk of developing BCC.
Melanoma. Melanoma is the third most common and most deadly form of skin cancer in all racial groups. In Caucasians, melanomas predominantly occur in sun-exposed skin, whereas in Asians and Blacks, ultraviolet radiation does not appear to be a significant risk factor, and the majority occur in non-sun-exposed skin (i.e. subungual — which is part of the nail beds of fingers and toes, palms of the hands and the bottom of the feet, and mucus membranes).
In Black people who have vitiligo or albinism, there is an increased risk of skin cancers due to sun exposure. These conditions lack melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin. By not having melanin, there is no photo-protection provided. According to Dr. Ailynne Marie Vergara-Wijangco, M.D., a dermatologist and expert in skin diseases, “The biggest risk factor is a first-degree relative with a melanoma, a parent, sibling, or if a child of yours has melanoma, your chance of getting it is 50-percent higher.”
The best spf for black skin
Dr. Kemunto Mokaya, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist said, “Black people come in all shades (think of the variation in color between Meghan Markle and Lupita Nyongo). Lighter-skinned Black people have a higher risk of skin cancers than darker-skinned people. Because of this variation, it is safer just to recommend SPF 30 and higher for all skin types.”
“The darkest skin has a natural SPF of about 13 to 15 but a minimum sunscreen SPF of 30 is recommended in general. Darker-skinned Black people can get away with SPF 15 sunscreens. Just to cover our bases, most dermatologists recommended SPF 30+ for all people, ” said Dr. Mokaya. Putting on sunscreen should be part of your child’s daily routine and it should be put in their backpack to take with them to school since it only lasts about two-hours.
Normalize Sunscreen on Black Children
The answer to the question, “Do Black children need sunscreen?” is YES! Yes, they do need sunscreen to keep them from burning and to prevent wrinkles later in life but mostly to prevent cancer. An area of the body that burns easily could later in life show signs of skin cancer.
And anyone who gives you a hard time about your child wearing sunscreen, dismiss them and put it on your child and put it on thickly. Skincancer.org states that the recommended amount of sunscreen for the entire body is about a shot glass full, which is one ounce. If you want to be precise, Sunshotz makes a convenient silicone measuring cup to help you apply the perfect amount of sunscreen.
Sunscreen should be used daily, even on overcast or rainy days. The problem here is that white chalky sunscreen will make Black people look ashy, right? Instead, purchase lotions with sunscreen added. Adults can use makeup with sunscreen protection and of course there are the clear spray-on sunscreens. Also, check out Black Girl Sunscreen, a Black-owned company, theirs does not leave a chalky or purple residue. “The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids, regardless of their skin tone, wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.” The higher the number of SPF the broader spectrum of radiation it protects you from.
If your children are at the beach or in the pool, make sure the sunscreen is water-proof or water resistant. As a parent, I like the spray-on misting sunscreen for the body because it’s easy, fast, and clear. And I use a stick sunscreen for the face to cover areas that are easy to burn like the cheeks and nose.
According to the Mayo Clinic, sunscreen is safe to use on babies older than six-months and to use other preventative methods for babies younger than six-months, such as protective clothing, hats with brims, long-sleeve swimsuits, floats with shade, and keeping them in the shade when outdoors. “The best practice is to apply 30-minutes before venturing outside to allow the sunscreen to bind to your skin. Reapply every two hours of exposure and immediately after swimming or excessive sweating. Even when it’s cloudy, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV radiation reaches the earth” (Skincancer.org).
“The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids, regardless of their skin tone, wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.”
So, the final answer is YES, absolutely yes use sunscreen on your child. The lighter the child’s skin, the likely the higher SPF you will need and use it daily.
Dr. Kemmy’s Recommendations
- Avoid sunscreen in infants. Also, avoid exposing them to direct sunlight. Always cover them up with protective clothing.
- If possible, get physical sunscreen creams or lotions that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They are less controversial than the chemical sunscreens. When powdered and spray formulations of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens are used, there is a possible risk of inhalation.
- Cover up: Put sunglasses on your child when out in the sun. Use hats, shirts, shorts and pants to provide the protection from UV rays. Extra bonus if you buy clothing with built in UPF protection.
- Avoid letting your child go out in the sun during peak periods of UV radiation. They can go outdoors in the late afternoon or the early morning when the sun is lower and the UV rays are less harmful.
- Seek shade: stay under umbrellas, picnic tables, trees, etc.
- Reapply sunscreen, especially when kids are sweating a lot or doing water activities.
- If you are near water (beach, a pool, pond, etc.) or at a high elevation, consider more sun protection. Water and snow reflect-back UV rays. UV rays are also more potent at higher elevations.
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Journalist and CEO of Successful Parenting Media
Janice Robinson-Celeste started her journey with a degree in education. She became the early childhood specialist and parent educator for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and for the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center. This is where she began her formal career of public speaking. Robinson-Celeste was with African American Women on Tour and has traveled nationally speaking to parents and professionals at various expos, and includes Disney as a client. She has been a director of NAEYC accredited childcare centers and a multimedia news journalist covering the education beat.
Later, she founded Successful Black Parenting magazine, obtained her M.B.A., and won several awards, including one from Allstate as a Woman of Triumph, alongside Patty LaBelle. She was a journalism professor for Hofstra University in New York, taught multimedia to teens at several high schools, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. In addition she won a Sara Award for her work from Women in Communications, the Benjamin Franklin Technology Award, and an Apex Award for her multimedia talent. She is a best-selling author of several parenting and children’s books. Robinson-Celeste held the title of Mrs. NJ United States (2015) and is currently the executive producer of Ethnic Animations, as well as the publisher of Successful Black Parenting. She resides in Los Angeles with her dog, Gigi.