Have you heard the 80s’ R&B song that says, "I can't go a day without my sunshine,'' by Alexander O'Neil? Of course he was talking about a woman, but what if he was onto something?
Perhaps O’Neil’s song is calling us to action to get daily, sensible, sun exposure to improve our health. We need to be intentional about sun exposure, and not go one day without our sunshine.
So why do most people fear the sun, especially Black Americans? Let’s explore the top two reasons why people fear the sun.
Heliophobia is a serious mental health condition that causes extreme anxiety. The term “heliophobia'' finds its roots in the Greek word for the sun, helios. “Phobia” simply means a deeply embedded fear. Therefore, “heliophobia” is an intense, sometimes irrational, fear of the sun.
People with heliophobia are often also afraid of bright indoor light, likely the result of light sensitivity. Most people who have heliophobia overcome this fear through cognitive behavioral methods, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, and other techniques.
Yet, many people fear and avoid the sun for reasons that are not related to a phobia.
Reason #1. Skin Cancer
It’s not surprising that many people fear the sun because they're scared to get skin cancer. We’ve all heard the warnings.
Avoid the sun, it'll give you skin cancer.
Use lots of the highest SPF sunscreen.
Wear protective clothing.
Wear all black to reflect the sun.
Don't forget your big sun hats.
The list goes on and on. These warnings have been applied to White and Black Americans alike. What we don't often hear is that skin cancer from the sun is a bigger problem for White Americans than Black Americans.
In an effort to make the messaging easy for the public to absorb and understand, public health communication around sun exposure and skin cancer has been misguidedly applied universally to all races.
While messages from dermatologists warn us that skin cancer rates are increasing, we don't often hear how these rates haven’t changed for Black Americans over time.
In reality, studies have shown an increase in melanoma rates for White Americans. Take a look at the chart below.
Cases Per 100,000 People
For Black Americans, the rates actually flat-lined at just one case per 100,000 people. Even then, the type of melanoma occurring in Black Americans has nothing to do with the sun.
It's a rare form of melanoma called acral litigious melanoma, which occurs in the mouth, on the palms of the hands, on the soles of the feet and under fingernails and toenails. In fact, Bob Marley died from a melanoma under the toenail of his big toe, and not from spending too much time in the sun.
In the United States, melanoma is the sixth most common cancer for White Americans. Meanwhile, it barely ranks for Black Americans. Between 2014 and 2018, government statistics show that 675 cases were melanoma out of more than 334,000 cases of cancer in Black Americans.
Black Americans can get melanoma, but the risk is very low. Black Americans need sensible sun exposure to get appropriate amounts of vitamin D.
High levels of melanin protects against damaging ultraviolet solar radiation, and also slows vitamin D production. Public health messaging to avoid the sun has resulted in a widespread fear of skin cancer. This avoidance of the sun has resulted in 95% of the Black American population as vitamin D insufficient.
Yes, getting too much sun is dangerous for your skin. However, contrary to colorblind warnings, getting daily sensible sun exposure has significant health benefits.
Reason #2. Premature Aging
Many people fear the sun due to premature aging and wrinkles. While we all want to look our best, we must also acknowledge that society’s pressure to look as young as possible for as long as possible is unrealistic.
Women are afraid to go to the beach or do outdoor activities because they're afraid of skin damage, wrinkles, and leathering skin. This is what the experts call “photoaging.” Despite the old adage, “Black don't crack,” Black American women are not immune to this fear. However, science shows that sensible sun exposure is not the problem.
Repeated burning is the problem.
Skin burning is dependent on race. Since 1979, studies have found on average 55% of UVA rays penetrate white skin, while fewer than 18% penetrate black skin. This results in a delay in photo aging for people with black skin. Technically, Black does crack. It's just delayed.
This fear of premature aging also leads women of all races to rely heavily on sunscreen to block the sun's rays. Cosmetic companies are profiting off of this fear. Many cosmetics today contain sunscreen, and it's almost impossible to find a product that doesn’t block UV exposure. While properly used sunscreen helps to prevent sunburn, the overuse of sunscreen on a daily basis may contribute to vitamin D insufficiency.
Benefits of Vitamin D
When it comes to aging, vitamin D is particularly important for women because of the role it plays in our bone development. Vitamin D deficiencies leach calcium from our muscles and bones causing pain, weakness, fractures, and osteoporosis. All of which are common in women as they age.
Sensible sun exposure also treats skin conditions. According to the World Health Organization, doctors have recommended sun exposure to treat things like psoriasis, acne, jaundice, and eczema.
Of course we all want to avoid skin cancer and premature aging. But we should be equally concerned about maintaining our mental health and quality of life.
Fearing the sun is not healthy or natural. Sun exposure offers the benefit of vitamin D production alongside many other physical health benefits. It also has been found to reverse seasonal affective disorder to help with depression, lowers blood pressure, and improves mood.
People intuitively associate the warm feeling of the sun on their skin with a sense of relaxation and well being. The sun releases endorphins in our bodies and radiates through the skin, creating a glow that surpasses age.
Avoid burning your skin and get the right amount of sun exposure for your skin type. Don't let fear of aging skin prevent you from getting your daily dose of sun exposure.
Remember, the goal for Black Americans is to get enough sun exposure to get your vitamin D level up to 30 nanograms per milliliter on the standard vitamin D blood test.
We hope this message encourages you to start making sensible sun exposure a daily habit. Soon, you’ll begin to understand why it's important to not go one day without your sunshine.