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How Does Sunburn Affect Dark Skin?

There is a notion among many people that dark skinned individuals are not affected by the rays of the sun and do not suffer from sunburn. While this is not entirely true, the fact is dark skinned people have less risk for sunburns than people who are fair skinned. That being said, some people with extremely dark skin such as those seen in Africa may not get any type of sun burn at all. Scientifically speaking, both dark and fair skin responds differently to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is much less likely for dark skin to burn and also it is very difficult to detect any damage to the skin caused by sunrays.[1,2,3]

However, people of all skin tones must use skin protection to prevent any damage to their skin due to sun. The likelihood of a person having skin damage as a result of the color of the skin due to sun is calculated through the Fitzpatrick scale. The ratings on the scale are from 1 which is given to very sensitive skin to 6 which has very low probability of getting sunburnt.[1,2,3]

Normally, very fair skinned people get rating of 1 and extremely dark complexioned people get a rating of 6 on this scale.[1,2,3] The article below highlights how sunburn affects the dark skin.

How Does Sun Affect Dark Skin?

How Does Sun Affect Dark Skin?

The high levels of melanin in people with dark skin protect them from the harmful rays of the sun. Melanin is a pigment that is responsible for giving color to the skin. It also protects the cells on the skin surface from the sunrays. This is the reason why people with dark skin tend to be less at risk for skin damage due to sun. A study published in the International Journal of dermatology has made a mention that about 66% of dark skinned people in the United Kingdom state that they have never experienced any symptoms of a skin burn and have not used any form of sun protection.[3]

Another study published in the JAMA Dermatology has reported data of over 30,000 people in which approximately 14% of African-Americans and 29% of Hispanics reported sunburns compared to about 43% of whites experiencing it. It should also be mentioned that it is quite challenging for physicians to detect any skin damage due to sun in dark skinned people due to the pigmentation. If the melanin levels are low, as seen in people with fair skin, skin damage is easy since melanin is not able to completely protect the skin.[3]

What Are The Symptoms Of Sunburn In Dark Skin?

It is quite easy to detect sunburns in light skinned people. In these people, the skin will become red and inflamed due to rays of the sun. In people with dark skin, it becomes much harder to detect the symptoms as the redness seen with sunburn. However, there are some symptoms that are common in both fair skinned and dark skinned people. These include the skin feeling hot, being overly sensitive to touch. The skin may also be at times painful. The person may have an itching sensation.[3]

Once the sunburn starts to heal, the skin over the affected area starts to peel off. It normally takes a few days for the symptoms of sunburn to completely go away. As much as it is difficult to detect any skin damage in dark skinned people, on the same token it should also be mentioned that even serious cases of sunburn which may cause heat stroke are also quite difficult to detect.[3]

However, there are some physical symptoms that can indicate a possible heat stroke if an individual after spending a lot of time in hot weather outside starts to experience headaches, dizziness, nausea, fever, chills, and muscle cramping. If this starts to occur then it is best to go to the nearest emergency room and start treatment since it may indicate a possible heat stroke.[3]

How Is Sunburn In Dark Skin Treated?

Minor cases of sunburn do not require treatment and resolves spontaneously in a matter of a few days. However, it is crucial for the person to protect the skin during the healing phase by preventing any direct sun exposure to the affected area. If the person has to go out in the sun then it is best to wear a hat and sunglasses to protect the face. Wear clothing that covers the affected areas completely. Applying FDA approved sunscreens which are easily available in the pharmacies. It is also important to get in shade whenever possible and limit the exposure to direct sunlight.[3]

Even though melanin protects the skin from sun damage, it may not be able to protect all the damages that can be caused by the ultraviolet rays of the sun. This is the reason why protection from direct rays of the sun is vital for everyone, even dark skinned people. The FDA has approved sunscreens that contain zinc oxide titanium dioxide and this should be used by people without fail while going out in the sun in hot weather conditions.

In conclusion, it is true that the chances of a dark skinned person having sunburn is less but that does not mean that they cannot have it at all. This is only possible in very dark skinned people which are quite few at least in the United States. Having dark skin means that there are increased levels of melanin which is a naturally occurring pigment that gives the skin its color. Melanin protects the skin from any sun damage. This is the reason why fair skinned people are more prone to skin damage due to sun exposure than dark skinned people.[1,2,3]

Also of note is the fact that even if there is skin damage due to sun in dark skinned people, it is very difficult to detect it. Generally, sunburn causes the skin to become red and inflamed. In dark skinned people this may not be evident. However, there are other symptoms that have been mentioned above that indicate the person may have experienced sunburn.[1,2,3]

Minor cases of sunburn do not require any treatment and heal themselves within a few days. However, during the healing phase it is vital to protect the affected area of the skin. Additionally, it is also important to protect the body from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. This can be done by wearing light colored clothes, applying sunscreens on the exposed areas of the body, going in shade whenever possible, and keeping the body hydrated. Following these protocols enables the person to protect the skin from sunburn irrespective of the skin color.[1,2,3]


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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:February 11, 2022

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