Sunscreen is non-negotiable - no matter what your skin colour!

Applying sunscreen everyday is as important and necessary as brushing your teeth, writes Mathahle Stofile

18 January 2018 - 20:02 By Mathahle Stofile
From protecting against skin cancer to preventing premature ageing, sunscreen is a must.
From protecting against skin cancer to preventing premature ageing, sunscreen is a must.
Image: 123RF/rudakova

If you grew up in South Africa, chances are you have memories of beach summer holidays, or long, hot, dry summer days accompanied by evening thunder storms. I clearly remember the feeling of contentment on balmy evenings after a whole day spent frolicking in water with my siblings and friends.

But our skin tone would be two to three shades deeper, and feel sensitive to the touch. There would be patches that were clearly peeling off, usually on our noses and shoulders. This would happen despite my mother’s diligence in applying thick layers of gunky, white sunscreen all over our bodies — mainly our faces. We hated the stuff.

I now know that our skin burnt despite my mother’s efforts. The sunscreen was applied just before leaving the house for the beach and would not be reapplied in all those hours we spent in the water and were exposed to direct sunlight. Big mistake — even for black kids.

“It is true that about 80% of sun damage on our skins happens before the age of about 25. Thereafter, it becomes a matter of poor ability to heal with age, which contributes to the rest of the photo-ageing issue,” Dr Irshad Mohummed Essack says.


MYTH: If you apply sunscreen, you are completely protected from the sun and, therefore,  invincible to the damage it can cause.

TRUTH: Sunscreen photo-degrades after about 3 hours or so, so you need to reapply it.

Babies less than a year old should avoid direct exposure to sunlight by wearing breathable clothing that covers the limbs and hats to shade their faces when out.

After 12 months, parents and caregivers can start applying sunscreen on the children daily. Make a habit out of it — it’s as important and necessary as brushing one’s teeth, if not more so.

I don’t know a single person that loves sunscreen. It’s usually inconvenient (how am I supposed to reapply over my foundation?); children can’t keep still long enough to apply the stuff; and, if you’re black, good luck finding one that won’t make your complexion look as if it’s covered in light grey cling film.

Sunscreen, however, is a necessary evil, and if you live in South Africa, which has one of the harshest climates on earth, you have to wear it every single day — not only when you plan on spending the whole day in the sun.

Essack says: “The majority of (sun) damage will be there to stay. However, the skin has the ability to rejuvenate or heal naturally. This all depends on, firstly, the degree of the damage already done; secondly, the age of the person, bearing in mind that the older you are, the poorer your rejuvenation potential (hence the anti-ageing industry is worth millions); and, thirdly, the person’s innate and natural healing characteristics.”


Some people have argued that wearing sunscreen is pointless because to obtain the promised benefits, you’d have to use the whole tube — or some really impractical amount — over two days. We checked this with Essack to see how much sunscreen one has to apply to receive adequate protection from the sun.


When applying sunscreen, don’t leave out the ears, neck, shins, bald scalp, and back of the hands (especially if you’re a driver!), Essack says.

“Sunscreens are tested at a dose of 0.2g/cm2 in vitro (lab). The SPF on the packaging is the result of this international dose standard and thus makes it easier for us to compare,” Essack says. “Therefore, we need 1g per 5cm2. Patients’ face sizes vary, but generally about half a palm amount ought to be applied to the face to get the advertised SPF. But none of us really apply it like that.”  

So it is true that you need apply (and reapply) quite a lot of sunscreen to obtain adequate protection. 

Half a palmful of sunscreen to cover just the face area sounds a bit crazy, we know, but using less is better than nothing at all. Our advice? Apply as much as you can handle and go for the highest SPF you can find.

Keep out of direct sunlight and avoid it at all costs between noon and 3pm, when the sun is at its harshest.

This article is adapted from one originally published in Sunday Times The Edit Spring/Summer Holiday '16, a magazine sent out to select subscribers.