- People with darker skin have more melanin, which is a natural pigment that can protect skin from sun damage.
- Dark-skinned people also have more of a specific type of melanin, called eumelanin, which is better at protecting skin from UV rays.
- But even if you have dark skin, it is still important to take precautions like applying sunscreen and using protective coverings while outside.
- This article was medically reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
While we usually mainly associate sunburns with people with pale skin, people with all different types of complexions can experience sun damage and sunburns. However, the severity of sunburn depends on complexion. It all boils down to melanin.
More melanin usually means less sunburn
Melanin is a natural pigment that determines the color of skin, hair, and even nails, according to Sarika Ramachandran, MD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine.
Dark-skinned people have a higher amount of melanin when they’re born. Melanin also serves to protect your skin from UV damage, Ramachandran says. For example, tanning happens when the UV light from the sun increases melanin production. This extra melanin darkens your skin and gives it some protection from UV rays.
Since people with darker skin have higher amounts of melanin to begin with, they technically are better protected from damage from UV radiation.
Additionally, Ramachandran says dark skin has more of one specific type of melanin called eumelanin, which tends to protect skin from UV damage. For this reason, it’s less common for people with darker skin to get sunburn, but it’s still possible.
According to the CDC, the prevalence of sunburn is highest in Caucasians, affecting 65.6% of people. Black people have the lowest prevalence of sunburn, at a rate of just 10.9%.
So, while it’s less common, it’s absolutely possible for dark-skinned people to get sunburn.
How you should protect your skin
A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that only 31% of African Americans use sun protection — whether it’s sunscreen, sunglasses, or wide-brimmed hats. Whereas 63% admitted to never using sunscreen.
However, Ramachandran says everyone should take protective measures when outside, regardless of skin color. Sunburn is still possible, as are other risks associated with harmful UV radiation, such as premature aging and skin cancer.
“In people with darker skin types, skin cancers may occur on the hands, feet, or mouth. People may not check these areas regularly and this may lead to delayed diagnosis of the skin cancer,” says Ramachandran.
To protect yourself while outdoors, use a broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30, and reapply every two hours. Ramachandran also recommends wearing sun-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. You may want to limit sun exposure during the sun’s peak hours, which are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Taking care of yourself while exposed to the sun by following these instructions will greatly reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancer.