My questions to two acclaimed Dermatologists was simple: 1) Do Women of Color need to wear sunscreen? 2) Why?
It was not just idle curiosity. Ten years ago I was suffering. I was an oily girl, with mountains on top of mole hills forming their own island chain on my face, and every aberration in between. It hurt to smile. It hurt to sleep. It hurt to think about anything other than being in someone else’s normal or just manageable skin.
Talk about wanting to escape. I mean, my face was so bad that in a city like New York, where anonymity is worn like the raised collar on a classic trench, virtual strangers would offer advice.
What could I do but smile? Looking back, I wonder now where I ever got the confidence to leave the house, much less have a conversation. But I knew, no matter how dramatic this next sounds—if I did not live, I would die. And strangely enough, the state of my face never affected my relationships or my personal spark. I just faked it until I found a workable solution.
The day I found Dr. Deborah Simmons, between the pages of the The Essence Total Makeover: Body, Beauty, Spirit coffee table book, I knew that no matter the cost (and I imagined she cost a mint) I would seek her out. There was something about her bedside manner that literally called to me.
Thank God that even with a who’s who wall of fame, she did not cost a mint. She also did not promise me the sun and the moon. What she did, was immediately become very invested in my healthy skin care journey.
We initially talked about back home—I discovered she grew up in The Virgin Islands. We talked about her favorite cake—Vienna. She got to know me when doctors of every stripe, as good as they want to be and are, can’t afford anything but a quick minute. And over time, with the simplest of regimens and some samples ( I was a struggling college-student) she got me to a personal happy place with my skin care, which very much included daily applications of sunscreen—A novelty for an oily girl who didn’t even believe in moisturizer until her mid 20’s.
So when I reached out to her to ask the above question, it should not have surprised me that after 4 years of distance, she would pick up the phone and call me, simply because I said I had launched DASHEEN magazine and wanted to talk about Women of Color in the Caribbean and elsewhere who thought sunscreen was a don’t.
Her easy and quick answer to the first part—“They do!”
“It’s important because skin care is in part genetic. There are very few people who can say they are pure anything–ethnically or racially,” Dr. Simmons says. “The [American] Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone uses some kind of sun protection. Particularly if you live in a sunny climate like back home (the Caribbean) then you need a sunscreen. Now darker skinned women of color do not generally need as high an SPF as Caucasians. A 15 [SPF] is adequate, and if fair [skinned], use a 30 [SPF].”
What about the why?
“Your primary concern would be skin cancer, but there is also darkening of the skin and freckling and particularly for those who suffer from hyper-pigmentation and who have acne blemishes, since those areas will be the most prone to darkening.”
So, the threat of skin cancer is real for Women of Color?
“Anyone can get skin cancer,” she warned. “In people of color, the highest incidences of melanoma are in the palms and soles. It is important that people of color check their feet and hands and even fingernails. In fact if you see any changes with your skin that was not there before, you should have it checked out.”
For those who may be more mature, and who may say they have never worn sunscreen before and so why should they do it now.
“Well the environment has changed. There is more ultraviolet light coming through. Whatever the debate is over how much percentage-wise, prevention is always better than cure.”
Growing up where having a Dermatologist on island seemed like a pipe-dream, I love that Dr. Carolyn Merritt is serving all Virgin Islanders and others on the island of St. Croix. It seemed only right that I reach out to her on the recommendation of my mom. And she, as busy as her practice is, left no less than three voice messages in response to my sole attempt to reach her.
I was struck by how closely her and Dr. Simmons’ responses mirrored.
“Sunscreen is recommended to be used by all skin types. And I definitely recommend sunscreen,” says Dr. Merritt. “I think more people should use sunscreen. I recommend a lot of sunscreen for women who have hyper-pigmentation issues. Also for those with Malasma, and if you’re using a product that makes you skin sensitive”
“Our natural protection is the pigment in our skin, but the conditions in the environment have changed and these days the sun is really penetrating to all skin types. So you should definitely use sunscreen.”
Dr. Merritt insisted that as a preventive measure and just a part of a regular checkup, that women “need to be aware of their vitamin D levels.” This was a completely new concept to me, but it is as simple as having this scan added to any blood work already in progress.
Another very real personal issue raised was the tendency for products with higher SPF’s to leave darker skin looking ‘funny’ (Dr. Simmons) or ‘ashen’ (Dr. Merritt) and that is as a result of the titanium dioxide in the ingredient list.
In light of the above, Dr. Simmons recommends the following:
Dr. Merritt also recommends Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch, which she says is “effective at lengthening the effectiveness of sun protection.”
My sincere thanks to Dr. Simmons and Dr. Merritt for taking time out of busy schedules to share their expertise! I can’t wait to try their recommendations.
Do you use sunscreen? Why or why not? If you do, which have you found most effective?