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Black may not crack, but it can sunburn

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Dr. Rubidium at Thirty-Seven drops some serious science dispelling the myth that Black folk don’t get sunburn.

In verse 3 of Clique, Kanye re-interates this myth.


Here’s an excerpt of her enlightening post:

@DNLee5's arm (left) and my arm (right)

@DNLee5 and I are both black, but @DNLee5 has more melanin in her skin cells than I do and has darker skin. We both can get sunburns.

Sunburn results when the amount of exposure to the sun or other ultraviolet light source exceeds the ability of the body’s protective pigment, melanin, to protect the skin.

[Sunburn from MedlinePlus of the National Institute of Health]

Because @DNLee5 has more melanin in her skin than I do, she may be able to tolerate a longer exposure to the sun longer than I can. While a kid, I once suffered a sunburn so severe it was classified as a second degree burn requiring medical treatment. @DNLee5, who recently returned from field research in Tanzania, has this to say:

Being darker means I may not burn as quickly as @DrRubidium, who has lighter skin, but my skin definitely does feel and react to the heat. If unprotected (via clothing or sun block), my skin tone will deepen with continued exposure. But more immediately it get warm, and hold heat. At times I have gotten heat rash. I’m still fighting off a heat rash from Africa. The problem with my darker skin and extended sun exposure is that I will not likely get the tell-tale signs of heat burn – the redness. Maybe that is why people think Black folks don’t get sun burn, because we rarely see it, except in folks with fairer skin tones. But it does and can happen.

Unless Kayne West is taking the recommended precautions, he too can get a sunburn.

The persistent myth that black people don’t get sunburns gave rise to the myth that black people don’t get skin cancer.

Read the complete post at Thirty-Seven, hosted at Scientopia: Black People Don’t…get sunburn (NOT).

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bongobimbo 11:50 pm 11/22/2012

    I was stationed in San Diego as a Navy Ensign, and a boyfriend and I went to the beach on a hot sunny Saturday morning with two African American fellow naval officers. The woman officer, MaryJo, was a friend of mine. I’m a redhead, grew up in Miami, a paleface who can’t tan at all and can barely freckle. I’d had my share of bad sunburns and even a couple of hospital stays, so I sat on the beach under a big umbrella most of the time. My boyfriend, although very tan, came in frequently to sit in shade.

    MaryJo’s boyfriend was a great swimmer, a surfer, very dark from being outdoors, and had evidently built up his melanin. She was from Minnesota, a good swimmer, but had never been exposed to California sun. They came in after about 3 hours of swimming around, MaryJo told us she felt awful, and her skin was obviously blistering. We piled in the car, went to the Naval base medical clinic, where she was kept overnight since she was vomiting and very hot. Although she felt well enough by Monday to come to work she was still sore from sunburn–and later her skin peeled, just as mine always did. I remember how indignant she was. “What’s the use of having dark brown skin if you’re still going to sunburn?” she asked. It seemed a reasonable question, but after a few weeks, building up gradually, she turned a darker shade of brown and could stay out in the ocean a lot longer. Sadly, there was no sunblocker in those days. Nowadays my African American friends who plan to be outdoors more than a few minutes use at least 25+ sunblocker. Very smart.

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