Can Black People Get Sunburn? Myths vs. Facts

Sunburn is a common skin problem that can occur when the skin is exposed to excessive sunlight. It is usually associated with fair-skinned individuals, but can black people get sunburn too? The answer is yes. Despite having more melanin in their skin, which provides some natural protection against UV rays, black people are still at risk of getting sunburn. 

In this article, we will explore the risks and prevention strategies for sunburn in black people.

Understanding Skin Types

Skin types are typically categorized based on melanin levels, a pigment responsible for skin, hair, and eye color. These categories include:

  • Type I: Very fair skin that always burns and never tans.
  • Type II: Fair skin that burns easily and tans minimally.
  • Type III: Light to medium skin that sometimes burns and gradually tans.
  • Type IV: Olive to moderate brown skin that rarely burns and tans easily.
  • Type V: Brown skin that rarely burns and tans very easily.
  • Type VI: Dark brown to black skin that almost never burns and tans very easily.

Melanin plays a crucial role in protecting the skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation by absorbing and dissipating the energy from UV rays. People with darker skin (Types IV to VI) have more melanin, which provides some natural sun protection. This increased melanin content does make them less prone to sunburn compared to individuals with fairer skin (Types I to III). However, it is important to note that melanin does not render individuals with dark skin completely immune to sunburn or the damaging effects of UV radiation.

UV Radiation and Sunburn

Understanding the different types of UV radiation is essential when discussing sunburn and its impact on various skin types. UV radiation is divided into UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays primarily contribute to skin aging and can penetrate deeper into the skin, while UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburn and affect the top layers of the skin. When it comes to sunburn, UVB radiation is the key player, and it can affect individuals of all skin types, regardless of their level of melanin. 

While melanin offers some level of natural protection against UVB rays, excessive exposure to these rays can overwhelm the skin’s defenses, leading to sunburn, especially in those with darker skin who might underestimate their risk.

Can Black People Get Sunburn?

Yes, Black people can get sunburn. While people with darker skin tones have more melanin, which helps protect the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, they can still get sunburned, especially if they are not wearing sunscreen.

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 80% of Black people had experienced sunburn at some point in their lives. The study also found that Black people with lighter skin tones were more likely to get sunburned than those with darker skin tones.

Another study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, found that Black people who were sunburned were more likely to develop skin cancer than those who were not sunburned.

Factors Influencing Sunburn in Black People

Sun Exposure Intensity and Duration: Prolonged and intense sun exposure, especially during peak hours when UV radiation is strongest, can increase the risk of sunburn for individuals of all skin types, including those with darker skin.

Environmental Factors: Geographic location, altitude, and proximity to the equator can affect the intensity of UV radiation. People living in regions with higher UV levels may be at greater risk of sunburn.

Use of Sunscreen or Protective Clothing: The use of sunscreen with sufficient sun protection factor (SPF) or wearing protective clothing, such as wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses, can significantly reduce the risk of sunburn in individuals with darker skin.

Skin Sensitivity: Some individuals, regardless of their skin type, may have higher sensitivity to UV radiation, making them more prone to sunburn.

Skin Conditions: Certain skin conditions, such as eczema or dermatitis, can disrupt the skin’s natural barrier, increasing the risk of sunburn, even in individuals with darker skin.

Signs of Skin Cancer in Dark Skin Tones

Skin cancer can manifest differently in individuals with dark skin tones, making it important to be aware of specific signs and symptoms. Common signs of skin cancer in dark skin tones include dark brown or black lesions, the appearance of irregular, raised, or firm bumps, and wounds that do not heal. Additionally, skin cancer can develop in areas not typically exposed to the sun, like the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and mucous membranes, making it essential to check these areas as well.

While skin cancer occurs less frequently in individuals with darker skin tones, it often leads to later-stage diagnoses with more adverse clinical outcomes.

tips for sun protection

  • Wear protective clothing: Covering up your skin with long-sleeved shirts, hats, and sunglasses can help reduce your sun exposure.
  • Use sunscreen: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to exposed areas of skin before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
  • Avoid peak sunlight hours: The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, so try to limit your outdoor activities during these times.
  • Seek shade: If possible, stay in the shade during peak sunlight hours.
  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help keep your skin hydrated and reduce the risk of sun damage.


  1. Do black people need sunscreen? Yes, black people still need to use sunscreen to protect their skin from UV rays and prevent sunburn.
  2. Why do black people get sunburn less often than white people? Black people have more melanin in their skin, which provides natural protection against the sun. 
  3. What SPF should black people use? Black people should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
  4. Can tanning beds cause sunburn in black people? Yes, tanning beds emit UV rays that can cause sunburn in all skin types, including black skin.

Final Takeaway

The misconception that individuals with darker skin tones are immune to sunburn and skin cancer highlights the importance of raising awareness about the potential risks and consequences of UV radiation exposure for all skin types. While it is true that melanin provides some natural protection, no one is entirely immune to the harmful effects of the sun. Recognizing the signs of skin cancer in dark skin tones and promoting regular skin self-examinations, professional checks, and sun protection practices are vital steps in early detection and prevention.

By understanding that skin cancer can affect individuals of all backgrounds, we can work towards reducing the disparities in diagnosis and clinical outcomes and ensure that everyone, regardless of their skin tone, receives the necessary care and education to protect their skin health.