The Unseen Dangers of Sun Exposure for dark skin and the rising risk of skin cancer

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“More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. One in five Kenyans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.”

One in five Kenyans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70- Image courtesy Semanticscholar.org

By Calister Bonareri

Njeri’s foray into skincare took an unforeseen detour after a facial at her local spa. In a bid to rejuvenate her skin, the therapist employed an abrasive physical scrub, triggering irritation and a subsequent outbreak of pimples within just two days.

Seeking resolution, Njeri returned to the spa, only to receive advice that compounded her skin issues – more scrubbing to address inflammation attributed to presumed dead skin. Frustrated and grappling with worsening skin concerns, Njeri sought professional help from a dermatologist. While a Tretinoin cream was prescribed to mitigate the damage, a crucial detail was overlooked – the imperative need to apply sunscreen throughout the day as well as wearing sun protective clothing and minimizing time spent under UV Rays.

This oversight left Njeri’s skin not only sore but also exposed to the deleterious effects of UV rays, underscoring the vital need for comprehensive skincare education, especially for individuals with darker skin tones.

“More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined. One in five Kenyans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.” Says Dr. Roop Saini an internationally recognized board-certified, Consultant Dermatologist in Nairobi.

She further notes that due to Kenya’s high altitudes and close proximity to the equator, it is closer to the sun and has a year-round warm climate.

“The closer you are to the sun, the less protection you have from the sun’s UV rays. People in Kenya spend more time outside because of how warm it is all year long and because the temperatures are warmer, you will be more likely to wear less clothing such as shorts, short sleeve tops, etc.”

How UV rays cause Skin Cancer.

Acute effects of UV Rays include DNA damage, sunburn, phototoxic and photo-allergic reactions, and suppression of the immune system. Immunosuppression can be considered as a risk factor for cancer.UV radiation from the sun can damage the DNA in our skin cells. DNA tells our cells how to function. If enough DNA damage builds up over time, it can cause cells to grow out of control, which can lead to skin cancer.

Skin Cancer Risks for Dark Skin

Despite prevalent misconceptions, individuals with darker skin are not inherently shielded from sun damage. The abundance of melanin, responsible for skin color, provides some protection but does not render dark skin impervious. UV rays can still lead to sunburn, hyperpigmentation, and lasting damage.

While skin cancer is commonly associated with fair-skinned individuals, statistics from Kenyan medical reports indicate a growing concern among dark-skinned populations. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, though less frequent in individuals with darker skin tones, tends to be more aggressive when it occurs. Figures reveal a rising number of dark-skinned individuals succumbing to skin cancer, underscoring the urgency of preventive measures.

According to the World Health Organization, excessive exposure to UVR caused around 1.2 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers (SCC and BCC) and 325 000 melanomas of the skin, and 64 000 premature deaths from non-melanoma and 57 000 melanomas of the skin in the year 2020.

Despite the evident risks, there is a significant gap in sun protection practices in Kenya, particularly among those with darker skin. Recent surveys indicate that only a small percentage of Kenyan individuals incorporate sunscreen into their daily skincare routine or minimize time spent under the sun. This alarming trend calls for heightened awareness and education regarding the critical role of sunscreen and other forms of UV rays protection in preventing skin damage and skin cancer.

Premature Aging and Hyperpigmentation

UV rays contribute significantly to premature aging, causing fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of skin elasticity. Darker skin is more prone to hyperpigmentation issues, and prolonged sun exposure can exacerbate these concerns, leading to uneven skin tone and dark spots.

Cases of dermatologists or cosmetologists prescribing products with strong actives without emphasizing the importance of sun protection are common.

“Anytime I’d step outside on a sunny day, I could feel like my skin is on fire.” Says Njeri “It was my aunt who noticed my struggles and since she had knowledge on skincare, we visited a local pharmacy and purchased the correct products as well as the sunscreen. I noticed a change within a couple of weeks.”

The Sun protection solution

Choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher is paramount for all skin types. This includes wearing the sunscreen even on cloudy days since UVA rays are still present and penetrate through the clouds. Staying under shades and wearing hats and cotton clothing that cover most of the skin is also highly encouraged.

The significance of wearing sunscreen for dark skin cannot be overstated, particularly in the context of Kenya. Protection against skin cancer and premature aging is a universal need, and the growing statistics of dark-skinned individuals affected by skin cancer warrant immediate attention. The shocking case of the dermatologist’s oversight in Njeri’s case serves as a wake-up call, urging comprehensive education and proactive measures to ensure the health and resilience of dark skin in the face of UV exposure.

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