I have been trying to learn more about race and institutional racism. It’s slow work, mostly because I am more of a thinker than a doer, so each new idea I read about or learn takes me some time to consider and digest. Also, it’s summer and I get easily distracted by drinks on my deck. But this article about Black people and sunscreen landed in my email box and is a good one for making me go, huh, and for shining a light on things I don’t think about. It’s very mundanity I think speaks volumes.
Sunscreen was also on my mind because recently a Black coworker brought up this very topic. She said she didn’t know the she should wear sunscreen, and she was headed to Florida in a few weeks. I had a few vague notions about it. I know that Black people have more melanin than people with lighter skin. I have friends with darker skin who stay out of the sun because they don’t want to get any darker. But that’s a whole different issue.
What caught my interest in this article was that it takes something everyone gets told by the medical establishment — we should all wear sunscreen because in the 1970s, researchers linked sun exposure to skin cancer. And then the article digs a little deeper. Those studies pretty much excluded dark-skinned people, but everyone gets the same blanket warning. Like the heart attack studies that focused on white men, and we were all told what symptoms to look for based on them. Then researchers discover that, oh wait, women tend to have different symptoms. And Black people were mostly left out of those studies, so there’s more work there.
According to the article, “Because people of color are often left out of clinical trials and treatments, there is very little research available about dark-skinned people and skin cancer, which raises questions about who is being considered when organizations make these public health recommendations.”
The few studies that exist show that the kinds of skin cancer Black people tend to get may be unrelated to sun exposure. Adewole Adamson, MD, a dermatologist and the director of the pigmented lesion clinic at The University of Texas at Austin’s Dell School of Medicine points out that “If UV exposure was such a problem for skin cancer, you’d see a massive epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa,” he added. “They don’t have the same level of sunscreen promotion that they do here. And you hear nothing about it because there probably is no association.”
So you think, OK, if it turns out Black people don’t need sunscreen, what’s the big deal? Using it can’t hurt. But it turns out maybe it can. Some sunscreens use chemicals to block the sun and they are just now doing studies about how much our bodies absorb the chemicals. These chemicals can enter our systems and do who knows what to us. Life is all about weighing risks; as a very pale white person at higher risk for skin cancer, I would rather take my chances with the chemicals or switch to the zinc-based kind of sunscreen, which is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, than play skin cancer roulette.
But Black people may not need to expose themselves to the chemicals. Or maybe they are at risk for a different kind of skin cancer with different symptoms and causes. But we don’t really know because we only studied white people. Like men and women and heart attacks.
We only have one piece of the puzzle. And that’s what systemic racism does. It doesn’t always scream like a Cheeto flea tweet; sometimes it gives the stamp of approval to the dusty pages of the medical journals, saying, you’re done, team of white researchers. Because systemic racism works to make Black people invisible, it suppresses good scientific questions — is this research true for all skin colors? For men and women? What aren’t we looking at? What aren’t we asking?
I mean, it’s just sunscreen. What’s the big deal?
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