Well aging

The color of our skin plays a role in aging

When we talk about skin aging, we need to differentiate between skin types. Darker skinned people often look younger than their lighter skinned peers. Their skin appears smoother and tends to have less wrinkles even as they get older. Do we have the wrong impression or is there something really going on?

It’s true, darker skin ages slower than lighter skin. You could even say that the darker the skin color, the slower it ages. Just to make sure there are no misunderstandings, we are not talking about dark, tanned skin, but rather differences related to people who are born with darker skin.

The fact that darker skin ages at a much slower rate has actually been demonstrated: signs of skin aging become visible around 10 years later compared to lighter skinned people of Northern European or North American ancestry. The reason: darker skin has more melanin, which is the pigment that colors our skin, hair and eyes.

Melanin protects against UV radiation

The more melanin we have, the greater the body’s natural sun protection. The higher the melanin content, the more UV radiation can be absorbed before generating substantial damage to the skin. In fact, darker skin has a higher natural sun protection factor. The average sun protection factor is about 13 for dark skin compared to around 3 for light skin. And damage due to sun exposure is one of the major causes of aging.

The impact of natural sun protection is also evident in the prevalence of some severe skin diseases. Cancer statistics from the United States state that 1.2 out of 100,000 African American males, whereas 34 out of 100,000 light skinned men develop melanoma. The difference was also evident among women: 1.0 out of 100,000 African American women were diagnosed with melanoma compared to 22.1 cases among light-skinned women. These findings were reported in the medical journal "CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians" in February 2019.

Diseases are harder to spot

The biggest problem for people with darker skin is that when skin changes occur, it is more difficult to see. Studies in the United States indicate that cancer is more often at an advanced stage by the time it is diagnosed. Because of this, treatment starts later and the chances of success decrease.

Skin types also differ in other ways that influence skin aging. Besides dark skin looking younger, the dermis is thicker in darker skin. The melanin in darker skin also prevents photoaging by helping to protect the elastic fibers, etc. Therefore, deep wrinkles are less common. And age spots, early signs of aging due to sun exposure, are much less noticeable in darker skin than in those with lighter skin.

On the flip side, very dark-skinned people are more likely to have other skin problems, such as dermatosis papulosa nigra (dark or brown spots, especially on the face; made famous by Morgan Freeman), or hypopigmentation, which refers to more obvious patches of skin that are lighter than the overall skin tone. People who have lighter skin tend to develop fine lines and wrinkles, as well as pigmentation disorders. Skin types with Asian and Latin American origin are also more prone to pigmentation disorders, but they are not as visible as in other skin types.

Ideals of beauty also depend on culture

Almost everyone around the world perceives having an uneven skin tone as problematic. Studies have shown that having blemishes and uneven skin tone influences whether people are perceived as attractive or not.

But there are also cultural differences: Northern Europeans tend to associate wrinkles with aging, while Asian women are more worried about their skin having pigmentation issues. The majority of Americans consider tanned skin as beautiful, regardless of their ethnicity and whether they are fair or dark-skinned. Asians living in Southeast Asia, however, consider light skin more attractive than having tanned skin.

Even in Africa, there are some tribes that consider a lighter skin tone as beautiful. A lighter-skinned woman means happiness in marriage, while a black skinned woman attracts misfortune – as an old saying goes. On the Ivory Coast, lighter-skinned children from mixed marriages between Africans and Whites are considered particularly beautiful.

Why? The Ivorian sociologist Ori Boizo has a plausible answer: “People perceive the skin of those who are doing well as more attractive. Beautiful is what symbolizes a comfortable, luxurious life."

What is your skin type?

Since 1975, the different skin color types have been divided into categories which are still valid today.

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