Often we hear questions related to tanning and darker skin, and the answers almost always relate to important information that should be shared: the need for the sunshine vitamin may be even greater in terms of health impact on people of color, than those with lighter skin.
According to the Vitamin D Council, there are two main ways to get vitamin D: through sun exposure, and from vitamin D supplements. They state that you can’t get enough vitamin D for what your body needs just from food.
The most natural way to get vitamin D is by exposing your bare skin to sunlight (ultraviolet B rays). You don’t need to tan or burn your skin to get vitamin D. How much vitamin D is produced from sunlight depends on the time of day, where you live in the world and the color of your skin.
They go on to explain that pale skin produces vitamin D faster than darker skin. Why is that?
Well, a recent in-depth Outside Magazine story looked back at the history of humanity for some clues related to how our ancestors migrated, or didn’t, and the impact that had on their skin color and ability to process sunlight for vitamin D.
All early humans evolved outdoors beneath a tropical sun. Like air, water, and food, sunlight was one of our key inputs. Humans also evolved a way to protect our skin from receiving too much radiation—melanin, a natural sunscreen. Our dark-skinned African ancestors produced so much melanin that they never had to worry about the sun.
This makes sense, right? If the sun is so dangerous, then how has humanity survived until now, without modern sunscreen?
In reality, the issues we face today probably have more to do with our indoor lifestyles, than the sun itself.
Now, pasty office workers hit the beach in the summer and get fried – burning is of course horrible for your skin, and without any natural protection anymore, pale skinned people are at a greater risk.
That also increases the risks of melanoma. But people of color rarely get melanoma.
The rate is 26 per 100,000 in Caucasians, 5 per 100,000 in Hispanics, and 1 per 100,000 in African Americans. On the rare occasion when African Americans do get melanoma, it’s mostly a kind that occurs on the palms, soles, or under the nails and is not caused by sun exposure.
So if darker skin doesn’t have as much risk from being in the sun, is there any upside? Why do black people need more sunlight, if they do? The Outside Magazine article points out:
African Americans suffer high rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, internal cancers, and other diseases that seem to improve in the presence of sunlight, of which they may well not be getting enough. Because of their genetically higher levels of melanin, they require more sun exposure to produce compounds like vitamin D, and they are less able to store that vitamin for darker days. They have much to gain from the sun and little to fear.
Other health statistics show that many of the common diseases which are preventable through optimizing vitamin D levels, disproportionately affect African Americans.
Fewer than 3% of the US African American population is within the recommended range for vitamin D level, 40-60 ng/ml. 63% are below 20 ng/ml, putting them at risk for rickets and osteomalacia, as well as a host of other diseases. Black children and teens are most deficient in vitamin D, with 41% below 20 ng/ml. Nearly 100% of black and Hispanic children and teens are below 40 ng/ml.
Tragically, this lack of vitamin D starts even before birth.
Preterm birth rates among African American women are 48% higher than the rate of all women. Rates of preeclampsia among African American women are approximately 50% higher than the rates among Caucasians over the past 30 years (source: Breathett et al.). The chart below shows that 73% of black women of childbearing years in the US are below 20 ng/ml.
So are African Americans and other people of color being told by the mainstream media, politicians, or their doctors, to “get more sunlight!”? Unfortunately, it’s quite the opposite, as Outside explains.
And yet they are being…misled into believing that sunscreen can prevent their melanomas. “The cosmetic industry is now trying to push sunscreen at dark-skinned people,” Dr Weller says. “At dermatology meetings, you get people standing up and saying, ‘We have to adapt products for this market.’ Well, no we don’t. This is a marketing ploy.”
What’s the solution then, for people with darker skin?
It is projected that the incidence of many of these diseases could be reduced by 20-50% or more, if the occurrence of vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency were eradicated by increasing vitamin D intakes through increased UVB exposure, fortified foods or supplements. The appropriate intake of vitamin D required to effect a significant disease reduction depends on the individual’s age, race, lifestyle, and latitude of residence. These scientists have stated that it is important to have vitamin D levels between 40-60 ng/ml (100-150 nmol/L) to prevent these diseases.
But remember, “melanin protects the skin against ultraviolet light. But by blocking the sun’s rays, melanin affects the skin’s ability to activate pre-vitamin D. So the darker the skin, the less vitamin D you produce. In the scientific literature, the difference is striking.”
So it’s very important for people with darker skin, to spend ample time in the sun whenever possible (adequate – you never want to burn, regardless of skin tone) as sunlight’s UV rays can greatly increase your body’s vitamin D production.
One great way to get enough UV exposure, no matter the natural color of your skin, is through tanning! Our sunbeds are highly engineered using the best in European tanning technology, and provide many of the same characteristics as sunshine.
No matter what the weather outside, or what you’ve previously heard about tanning, stop by your local Tan Republic location and try it out for yourself!
Take back control of your health, and in the process, you’ll have a relaxing session in a comfortable tanning bed and leave feeling energized and ready to take on the world.
Outside Magazine – Is Sunscreen The New Margarine
Dr. Consuelo Hopkins Wilkins, Washington University School of Medicine
Vitamin D Council
American Diabetes Association
Boston Scientific – Close The Gap
March of Dimes
Harvard Medical School