Late July to early August is prime for hot, super sunny days in Michigan. Staying hydrated helps with the heat, but we should also be protecting our skin from the sun’s rays, something that Ascension Medical Group family physician Dr. Victoria Cohen says melanin-rich people tend to forego due to myths around the power of melanin. “There’s a misconception that darker, or Black, skin is somehow immune to sun and skin damage because melanin stops it. While melanin does protect cells to some degree, melanin-rich skin can be vulnerable to damage by ultraviolet rays over time – the same as everyone else’s,” Dr. Cohen says. 

Sunbathing in the back yard

Often, the melanin that we think is guarding us could be hiding evidence of harm. Precancerous and cancerous skin lesions may be missed due to darker pigmentation. The use of tanning beds isn’t popular in the Black community, but many of us love to sunbathe, and the effect over time is similar. Dr. Cohen says that, yes, rates for skin cancer and other UV-related issues are lower, in general, for the African American community, but we aren’t exempt from the consequences of skin damage, and so, we need to wear sunscreen and take other precautions. “Sunburns do more than just sting for a few days. They hurt and peel like that because it’s an indication of skin being harmed on a cellular level, and so it needs to rebuild and repair itself. When that happens, there can be a hitch in the DNA of the repair process, and you can develop extra or cancerous cells and other problems,” says Dr. Cohen. 

The best protection on a sunny day is still sunscreen. Dr. Cohen says the sun protection factor, or SPF, is at its most effective when it’s around 50. The lowest recommended is SPF 30. Higher numbers only offer a fractional amount of protection after that. “It’s tempting to buy something like an SPF 80, but it’s not necessary. Getting the most out of your sunscreen is all about reapplying at the correct times. If you’re a swimmer, it’s going to be more often, but good brands will endure in water,” Dr. Cohen says. Sunscreen works with a combination of physical and chemical processes to absorb and scatter UV rays, creating a barrier from solar damage. The SPF number is a general measurement for how long the sun’s rays would take to redden skin, relative to someone not wearing any sunscreen. Applying a sunscreen with an SPF 30, for instance, will allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer than if your skin was unprotected. “Chemical sunscreens that contain zinc are great for babies.” 

Relaxing at the beach
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Long clothes and floppy hats serve as a good substitute for sunscreen if you don’t mind being covered up. Still, certain areas on the body are often neglected. “A lot of people don’t consider places like the scalp, especially if you’re bald, or earlobes and the bottoms of your feet. Those places can get burned, too, sometimes more quickly than the rest of the body,” says Dr. Cohen. She says people who spend a lot of time indoors or avoid lounging in direct sunlight should still take notice. “‘I don’t go outside.’ Well, you still leave and go somewhere, and you’re going to be exposed to the sun at some point. Protecting yourself and preparing your skin has no downside. It’s not just a thing to do after a diagnosis,” Dr. Cohen says.  

The sun isn’t the only thing the skin needs defense from during outdoor festivities. Critters like mosquitoes, ticks and biting flies can turn a fun camping trip into a nightmare. If you plan to go into the wilderness, cover your arms and legs with bug spray and proper clothing – even if it’s hot. “You don’t need a parka, but I wouldn’t recommend hiking wooded areas in shorts, particularly if you don’t know the area. Itchy bites could be the least of your problems; disease could be the worst. Just be smart about it, and you and your skin will enjoy the fun you can have this summer,” Dr. Cohen says. 

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627)