When it comes to summer skin care advice, we all know the usual hits.
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Stay away from pore-clogging lotions and creams.
Don’t go overboard with exfoliation.
While this advice is solid, you still might have to contend with additional factors based on your skin type.
People of color (those of African, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Native American descent) not only have to manage dry, oily, combination, normal or sensitive skin, but they also might be up against conditions like keloids, melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. And even though melanin can protect against the sun’s harsh ultraviolet (UV) rays, people of color still need to be careful. Why? Because according to the American Academy of Dermatology, by the time skin cancer is diagnosed in this patient population, it’s very difficult to treat.
Dermatologist and Section Head of Cleveland Clinic’s Skin of Color Clinic, Kiyanna Williams, MD, explains why it’s important for people of color to protect their skin from the summer sun and gives some helpful advice for keeping it healthy, gorgeous and glowing.
The importance of melanin
Melanin is magical. It’s responsible for your unique hair and eye colors and it’s what differentiates your skin tones. It’s created in melanocytes, which are cells found in the inner layer of your skin. In these cells, carotene and melanin combine to create the colors of your eyes, skin and hair.
There are three types of melanin.
- Eumelanin provides the darker coloring in skin, hair and eyes.
- Pheomelanin is responsible for pink, red and yellow tones for areas like your lips and it makes hair red.
- Neuromelanin is found in your brain. It doesn’t provide coloring for skin or hair. Instead, it colors neurons.
The benefits of melanin
Melanin can protect the skin from UV rays. It absorbs UV light before it can damage the DNA of your skin cells. Melanin also acts as an antioxidant by fighting free radicals and lessening the signs of aging like deep wrinkles and age spots. While this all sounds great, it doesn’t mean that people of color don’t have to worry about their skin — or that they don’t need to wear sunscreen.
Why people of color should wear sunscreen
“People often come to see me because they have either hyperpigmentation, melasma or both. I let them know that sunscreen will not only prevent those things from getting worse, but it’s also the first step in treatment for them,” says Dr. Williams.
She adds that while many products on the market are designed to treat dark spots or conditions like melasma, sunscreen is highly effective in helping to fade both.
“If you have dark spots or even melasma, you can spend all your money on all the things, but if you’re not wearing sunscreen, those products won’t help. Every time the sun hits your skin, it makes those spots darker and stimulates more melanin production. And this includes when you’re directly in the sun and when you’re inside. So sunlight that comes through windows, light from your phone, light from your computer and indoor light can darken those spots as well.”
What types of sunscreen are good for people of color?
Dr. Williams highly recommends mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in them. While they can leave a white cast, tinted options are less likely to do so. Tinted sunscreens also have iron oxides in them which will protect darker skin from indoor light including light from electronic screens such as cellphones and computers. They’re also less likely to irritate the skin.
Dr. Williams suggests giving your sunscreen five to 10 minutes to settle and blend in. But keep in mind that if you sweat a lot, you’ll need to reapply a mineral sunscreen often. She recommends sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for daily use. If you are going to be outside for prolonged periods of time, go for one with a higher SPF (greater than 50).
Moisturize your skin the right way
When the air gets thick and humid, don’t reach for thick creams or oils. Lighten up your moisturizing routine by using a lotion and don’t go overboard with fragrant or harsh body washes.
“If you have a particular issue with dryness, make sure that you’re washing your body with products that are formulated for sensitive skin. You’ll also want to hydrate your skin with lotions that are for sensitive skin. Creams are going to be heavier and denser than lotions. So, if it comes in a pump, it’s going to be thinner. If a moisturizer comes in a jar, it’s going to be thicker.”
Don’t moisturize your face like you moisturize your body
While many dual-purpose products exist, body lotion isn’t one of them. You may be tempted to use a little body lotion or cream on your face in a pinch, but don’t. Skincare products that are made for the body are way too much for the face.
“Generally, the face just doesn’t require the same level of thicker creams as the body does. The face has a much higher density of oil glands so it is already producing more moisture and oil than the rest of the body. So, the face rarely needs something that heavy. I generally tell my patients that body lotion should not be used on the face. It’s not interchangeable.”
Avoid harsh scrubs
If you want your skin to glow, gritty scrubs aren’t the way to go. Dr. Williams thinks that many scrubs are too rough and believes that they can worsen existing skin issues.
“I find a lot of them to be too coarse and too harsh and they cause more trauma than anything. What you can do instead is use a good exfoliating cleanser. These cleansers have various types of acids like glycolic acid and promote natural exfoliation. They won’t go too deep or cause mechanical trauma. They are also less likely to irritate or cause trauma like physical exfoliation can.”
Skip showering with hot water
Also, when you’re in the shower, don’t go for long, hot ones. Dr. Williams recommends warm water and lathering up with a gentle, moisturizing cleanser. And instead of waiting to apply lotion, she says you’ll get better results if you slather on a moisturizer immediately after gently patting skin dry.
“Moisturize immediately after you shower because that’s when your skin is going to be the most porous and more open to receiving a lotion or cream.”
How to avoid keloids and dark marks
Going sleeveless and wearing shorts or dresses can mean more chances for cuts, scrapes and other injuries. In most cases, these can be treated with a bandage and a good antibacterial ointment. But with skin of color, keloids and dark marks could also develop.
What are keloids?
Keloids are smooth, hard growths that can form over a scar or appear on their own. Keloids stem from an overgrowth of scar tissue. They’re harmless, but they can develop over weeks or even months.
“Keloids can form in two ways. They can form as a result of an injury or unfortunately, they can form for no reason at all.”
If your parents had keloids, there’s a chance that you’re prone to them as well. So, you’ll want to be extra careful and keep an eye on any injuries that you sustain.
“If you know that you’re prone to keloids, avoid tattoos, piercings and things that could contribute to keloid development. Keloids are tough to manage on your own. If you start to notice that a scar is becoming raised, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as you can because we have various treatment options for keloids. There are silicone sheets that you can get over-the-counter that could help, but there are also injections or medications that a dermatologist can use to help minimize keloids.”
Dr. Williams recommends the same course of action for dark marks.
“Similarly, with dark marks, there are prescription medications and treatments that can help even at the beginning of an injury. Earlier is better in terms of preventing dark spots or helping to minimize the dark spot once it’s there.”
When in doubt, have a dermatologist check your blemishes out
As discussed earlier, if you notice something questionable about your skin or are struggling with discoloration, keloids or even acne, don’t hesitate to reach out to a dermatologist. While it might seem like a lot of dermatologists aren’t familiar with the needs of skin of color, Dr. Williams says there are people like her in the specialty who can help.
“If there’s something you’re not sure about, something that’s been bothering you or something that you have questions about, make an appointment to see a dermatologist. Whether that be dark spots, a new growth that doesn’t look like other ones or questions about skincare products. We see people for a variety of reasons and we’re happy to help. However, what we don’t want you to do is not come in at all.”
And if past experiences with dermatologists have rubbed you the wrong way, Dr. Williams encourages you to be transparent with a new provider.
“As a patient, express any concerns you may have. It’s fine to say, ‘I had a bad experience with my last provider and I felt like they didn’t hear me or they didn’t understand me. I’m hoping that our experience can be better.’ When you put it all out there, it lets your new provider know what they can do differently as they help you achieve your treatment goals.”