Beware the sun, everyone: People with darker skin can get skin cancer, too
4 MINUTE READ
Protect yourself by learning the facts and preventive measures
Darker-skinned people don’t need to worry about exposure to sunlight and skin cancer, right?
Wrong. Skin cancer can strike anyone. And in darker-skinned people, the often-shocking diagnosis sometimes comes later than usual – and can lead to life-threatening implications.
Skin cancer can affect people of all races and skin tones. Here are six important facts to consider in protecting your skin from the ravages of melanoma and other serious skin cancers.
1. Lower awareness leads to higher risk among people with darker skin.
People with dark skin are less likely to get skin cancer than people with fair skin. They have more melanin in their skin, and that natural pigment does offer some protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
But the risk is still there, and made even more significant by the fact that there is lower public awareness of skin cancer among people with darker skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. These risks are not as well known even among health professionals too. As a result, skin cancers among people with darker skin tend to be diagnosed at a later stage, when they can be less treatable.
People with darker skin, like fair-skinned people, are susceptible to three major types of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma. Melanoma is far more serious, especially if not diagnosed early.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the five-year melanoma survival rate for Black patients is just 67 percent, versus 92 percent in white patients. Another study revealed that late-stage melanoma was diagnosed more commonly in Hispanic and Black patients compared to white patients.
2. Skin cancer can be harder to detect in darker-skinned people. So check yourself often.
Those with darker skin are more likely to develop squamous cell cancer and melanomas in areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, such as the palms of their hands and soles of their feet.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about half of basal cell cancers are brown in darker-skinned patients. But most pictures of basal cell cancers depict what they look like on fair-skinned people, with more pinkish tones.
To ensure no potential cancerous spots are overlooked, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends people with darker skin undergo a monthly full-body check, looking for the following signs:
- A dark spot/growth/darker patch of skin that is changing or bleeding
- Sores that heal slowly, don’t heal at all or that return after healing
- Rough, dry patches of skin
- A dark underline beneath or around a fingernail or toenail
Learn more about how to conduct a skin self-exam and what to look for.
3. Learn your skin cancer risk factors: ethnicity, family history and sun exposure.
According to research, skin cancer risk for people with darker skin depends on different factors, and many of them are unfamiliar to the general public:
Squamous cell cancer
- Most common in African Americans and Asian-Indians
- In African Americans, likely to appear in the legs, bottom or private parts
Basal cell cancer
- Most common in Hispanics, Chinese and Japanese people
- Usually seen in the head and neck
- Associated with too much sun exposure
- In African Americans, Asians, Hawaiians or Native Americans, it’s most likely to appear in the mouth, under fingernails or toenails, or on the palms of hand or soles of feet.
- In Hispanics, it usually appears on the feet of those with darker skin, or on the torso or legs on those with lighter skin.
4. Darker-skinned people must use sunscreen too.
Historically, sunscreens that address specific skin conditions for people with darker skin have been hard to find. Or, these products are waxy or otherwise unflattering. The Melanoma Research Alliance recommends using sunscreens that are described or characterized as sheer, ultra-sheer or invisible.
These sunscreens work by reflecting or absorbing the sun’s UVA rays (which can prematurely age your skin) and UVB rays (which cause burning). Experts recommend getting water-resistant, broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher; note that anything beyond SPF 50 offers limited additional protection.
Other ways to avoid sun exposure:
- In addition to using sunscreen, wear sun-protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.
- Consider UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing designed with built-in protection. The higher the UPF level, the better the protection
5. Stay safe…but don't forget about vitamin D.
If you're taking steps to stay out of direct sunlight, that's good. But you may also be inadvertently reducing your levels of vitamin D, some of which is produced by exposure to sunlight. So make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D in other ways, like through foods and vitamin supplements. This is especially important for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), who are at higher risk of complications if their vitamin D levels are low.
6. Get regular check-ups from a dermatologist.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends people with darker skin get a full-body, professional skin exam by a dermatologist once a year, or more often if you have higher risk factors, like a family history of skin cancer.
Check your Horizon insurance plan for information about coverage and if you need an in-network specialist near you, it’s easy to find one here.
Horizon Health News is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.