My first trip to Burma, in my early twenties, was an emotional “return” to the country my Irish-Burmese mother had left when she was 13. There were tears, smiles and lots of catching up. But among all this, one great-aunt pointed at my face and giggled.
“What’s she saying?” I asked an interpreter.
“You have spots,” he replied.
My “spots”—or freckles, as we call them here—are rarely seen in Burma, where lots of thanaka (a paste with sun-protection qualities made from tree bark), is carefully applied. Clearly, my three-quarters Celtic, one-quarter Asian skin was letting the side down a bit.
What happens to the complexions of those who have migrated and mixed over generations has often intrigued me. We are told to wear sunscreen constantly, even under grey English skies. We worry about skin cancer, ageing, pigmentation—and rightly so. But there are so many anomalies about sunscreen and its marketing that, even with all the best brands at my disposal, I am rubbish at wearing it. I am instinctively drawn to the sun, loving the way it colours my skin a deep nut-brown and enjoying the freedom of being sleeveless, but less appreciative of the patches of melasma that have appeared on my face over time. We know that sunlight is good for us—we need the Vitamin D it stimulates to prevent rickets, among other things. So how are we meant to stay protected, and if we have any drop of darkness in our bloodlines, how relevant are the one-size-fits-all rules that the beauty industry seems to apply?
In fact, we are all dark-skinned at heart—or at least many years ago we were. “Our earliest direct ancestor here in Britain, Cheddar Man, lived 10,000 years ago and had brown-black skin and blue eyes,” says Dr Richard Weller, an academic dermatologist from the University of Edinburgh. “By 2,000 years ago, people here had become white. We had had to evolve during this time in order to survive, and that was presumably to get the benefits from the sunlight, including more of the Vitamin D it stimulates, because the melanin in darker skins blocks it naturally.”
Weller has conducted much of his research over the past 12 years in Ethiopia, studying the effects of sunlight on cardiovascular health. “In Ethiopia, skin cancer is vanishingly rare—I’ve never really seen it, although you do see other UV skin conditions,” he says. “In America, skin cancer is about 70 times less prevalent among people of colour than it is in white Americans. There is zero need for someone of African or Asian origin to wear sunscreen all the time, and my concern is that it might be doing some harm. If you’re a person of colour, you’re more likely to have high blood pressure and heart attacks than skin cancer. Vitamin D and the nitric oxide release in response to sunlight are crucial.”
That said, at the point where people of colour do discover skin irregularities, however seldom that may be, it’s often too far down the line to be treated. “We don’t think of looking for skin cancer on a darker skin, because it is so rare,” says Weller. And while the message—that if you’re darker, you still need to be vigilant for any skin cancers—is finally seeping through, it has also become, he argues, somewhat lost in translation. If you’re dark-skinned, you’re encouraged to wear sunscreen all the time, or at least as often as Caucasians. Weller suspects it is partly for commercial reasons, but also because of racial politics.
“There are some well-meaning people out there who try to educate us on how we need sunscreen,” says Dija Ayodele, a skin health specialist and founder of the Black Skin Directory, “but there is also an element of racial politics within the inclusivity sphere. Everyone can’t be equal or have an equal need when it comes to wearing sunscreen; what’s more important is to be considerate of the needs of different groups of society, and find a way of protection that is appropriate to them.”
Being comfortable with our colour of origin is therefore crucial for our skin health. Colourism is still rife, with many women of colour preferring not to get “too dark”, just as my great-aunt in Burma was disapproving of my freckles. So what are the new rules for sunscreen and sun exposure? Ayodele believes that while you have more collagen if you’re darker, you do still need to be careful about ageing: “It’s not that ageing doesn’t happen at all, it’s just that it happens more slowly. Hyperpigmentation is also an issue, with melasma caused by left-over scarring from spots, which get worse if you have no sun protection.” Her tip is to allow the Vitamin D to be absorbed by your limbs and the rest of your body, while keeping your face protected—she still favours wearing sunscreen, but applies it once a day. “We have to live life, we have to be practical,” she says, “but sunscreen isn’t the only way, and you can do much with a big, floppy hat, sunglasses and staying out of the sun.”
And perhaps listening to the sensible advice of our forebears, observing their traditions around the sun, while dispelling the negative historic socio-economic reasons as being no longer relevant has a new significance, too. “For many black people I know, sitting in the sun is not something we do,” adds Ayodele. “We went to Barbados last year and were back in the hotel room at noon, just as the sun was at its strongest. All the Caucasian women were in the sun.”
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