You are probably not used to thinking of skin as an organ, but it’s actually the largest organ of the body. It has a myriad of functions and is a big contributor to overall health. Skin of color requires some special attention to keep it healthy and attractive. It’s prone to some conditions which are not typical of white skin, such as hyperpigmentation, or the risk that skin cancers tend to be more advanced at the time of diagnosis. So what are the best ways to take care of skin of color?
Dr. Uzoma Ewelukwa, of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Sugar Land, Texas is all too familiar with the questions and concerns when it comes to knowing how to care for skin. “Many people of color struggle to find good products for their skin, or they get bad advice from people who aren’t as experienced in treating skin of color. I’ve been there myself, and it makes me passionate about helping men and women of color keep their skin healthy and beautiful.”
Here are the top five skincare tips for skin of color:
1. Make skincare a daily routine
- Be gentle – There is no role for harsh chemicals or abrasive products. These can cause irritation and inflammation, leading to discoloration which may not be reversible. Harsh products can strip moisture from the skin, causing an ashy appearance.
- Moisturize – Use a thick moisturizer at least once a day, on the entire body. Applying it after showering will help keep your skin hydrated.
- Hair removal – Shaving must be done with care – skin of color is prone to irritation from shaving. You should always take care when shaving and choosing hair removal products. Use a thick, moisturizing shaving cream. Shave after you shower when your pores are open, to minimize risk for irritation and ingrown hairs. A single-bladed razor is better than a multibladed razor, which is more likely to pull and snag hair. Waxing should be done by a professional, to avoid injury, irritation, and infection.
2. Use Sunscreen
According to Dr. Ewelukwa, “There is a pervasive misconception that darker skin types do not need sunscreen protection. This is false, as sun damage does not discriminate and can affect all skin types. Sun damage can negatively affect skin of color, causing hyperpigmentation, rosacea, melasma, cutaneous lupus, photoaging or wrinkles, skin cancer, and many other common skin conditions. It is imperative that a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen regimen is implemented in all skin of color patients to protect against harmful UVA and UVB rays.”
Sunscreen is especially important if you plan to be outdoors for a long time. Even if you have minimal sun exposure, however, without adequate protection, damage accumulates over time.
“I recommend sunscreens with physical blockers (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide), as they tend to be gentler formulas and are safe for all skin types and even for use on infants,” says Dr. Ewelukwa. “Iron oxide is a plus as it also blocks visible light which has been linked to flares in hyperpigmentation disorders, such as melasma.”
How to use sunscreen:
- Apply 15-30 minutes before sun exposure. It lets a protective film form.
- Your sunscreen should protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. These products are usually labeled “broad spectrum.”
- About one ounce of sunscreen is needed to cover an adult.
- Choose a sunscreen with a SPF of 30+, especially if you or your family have a history of skin cancer, you burn easily, or you don’t tan. Some dermatologists say that an SPF of 15 is adequate for everyday use. Sunscreens with SPF 30+, however, do provide additional protection and usually cost the same as products with lesser SPFs. SPF means sun protection factor, an indicator of the product’s ability to protect you from UVB rays.
- Reapply every 1-2 hours.
- Water resistant sunscreens, labeled as effective for 40 or 80 minutes, must be reapplied after swimming or heavy sweating. Some new sunscreens are formulated for application even on wet skin.
3. Do regular Skin Self-Exams
Many people believe that skin cancer does not affect people of color, but it does, explains Dr. Ewelukwa. “While the risks of skin cancer are much lower in darker skin compared with white skin, it is still imperative that skin of color patients see a dermatologist for regular skin checks, especially since melanoma in this group can occur in areas that the sun doesn’t reach, usually on the palms and soles,” she says. “This subtype of melanoma is known as acral lentiginous melanoma, and due to the location of this cancer, patients tend to present when it is advanced. Sunscreen will not help with this form of skin cancer, but it does effectively protect against other forms of skin cancer, such as basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. Sunscreen can also prevent sunburn, hyperpigmentation, and photoaging.”
A recent study in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds that skin self-exams could reduce the risk of advanced disease among melanoma patients and potentially decrease melanoma mortality by up to 63 percent.
Examining your skin means taking note of all the spots on your body including moles, freckles, and age spots. A mole or skin lesion that is new or looks different from others, or is changing in size, shape, or color should always be noted. Something new, or changed, should be discussed with your doctor. Take pictures for reference and ask for help when checking your skin, especially in hard to see places. Follow a routine, to avoid missing any areas of skin.
- Examine your body front to back in a mirror, then your right and left sides, arms raised.
- Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part hair for a closer look at your scalp.
- Bend your elbows, look carefully at your forearms, the backs of your upper arms and palms.
- Check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.
- Look at the backs of your legs and feet, as well as your soles and the spaces between your toes.
4. Prevent hyperpigmentation
Melanin is the pigment which determines skin color. Hyperpigmentation occurs when skin overproduces melanin. It is most common as darker spots on the face, but they can appear anywhere on the body. There are a variety of causes that can trigger the skin to produce excess melanin. Avoiding the triggers or quickly recognizing and treating concerns may prevent hyperpigmentation.
Sun damage is the most common cause of hyperpigmentation in patients with naturally darker skin. Sunscreen is one of the easiest ways to prevent dark spots. Hyperpigmentation can also occur due to inflammation or trauma to the skin. These are also common causes of hyperpigmentation:
- harsh or excessive use of exfoliants
- inflammatory skin conditions (e.g. acne, eczema)
- hypersensitivity or allergic responses to products applied to the skin
- insect bites
- trauma such as cuts or burns
- excessive scratching
- incisions associated with medical procedures or surgery
Prevention of hyperpigmentation may include:
- using products compatible with your skin
- treatment of chronic skin conditions
- immediate treatment of wounds
- avoiding irritants and allergens
5. Make regular visits to your dermatologist
Visit a dermatologist at least annually for skin cancer screening. Recently, The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that melanomas found by physicians tend to be thinner (at an earlier stage, and more easily cured) than those found by patients on their own. At the time of your visit, the dermatologist can recommend the best skincare products for you.
If you are being treated for any problem conditions, see your dermatologist as advised. Follow your treatment plan exactly as instructed. Enjoy feeling confident about your skin’s appearance – feel good about the way you show up in the world.