You’ve probably heard that UV rays can increase the risk of skin cancer. Think your skin color can protect you from skin cancer? Think again!
People of color have a natural advantage over people with lighter skin because the higher level of melanin in dark skin offers natural protection again the damaging effects of the sun.
But having dark skin — no matter how dark — is not a “Get Out of Danger Free” card!
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the higher levels of melanin in dark skin is equivalent to a sunscreen with an SPF of about 13.4. That is better at protecting skin than the SPF of 3.4 provided by melanin in white skin, and helps explain why Caucasian people are more likely to develop skin cancer than their darker-skinned neighbors.
But that difference in SPF is not enough to guarantee skin protection for anyone. The same risks apply to tanning beds and other sources of UV radiation as they do to the light of the sun.
Still not convinced? Consider the death of reggae legend Bob Marley. What was first thought to be a soccer bruise under his toenail turned out to be a serious form of melanoma that eventually killed him.
Marley’s cancer was determined to be acral lentiginous melanoma, which is now recognized as one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer for people with dark skin.
ALM is a rare type of melanoma that is more often diagnosed in people of color, including African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics. It often occurs on areas of the body with less pigment that also receive limited sunlight, such as on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, as well as in fingernail and toenail beds.
Although ALM can easily be treated if found early, it is often undetected or unrecognized until it has reached an advanced stage in people of color.
The simple reason? Too many people hold to the false belief that people of color don’t get skin cancer.
That fact also helps explain why melanoma is significantly more dangerous for people of color. The odds of developing melanoma are just 1 in 1,000 for African Americans and 1 in 200 for Hispanics compared to 1 in 50 for Caucasians. 2
But the five-year survival rate for African Americans who are diagnosed with melanoma is only 73 percent compared with 91 percent for whites. 2
It all comes down to the importance of early diagnosis and treatment for every case of skin cancer on every shade of skin. Fifty-two percent of non-Hispanic blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics don’t find out they have skin cancer until the cancer is at an advanced stage. Only 6 percent of non-Hispanic whites are diagnosed that late in the advance of their disease, reported the Washington Post.
No matter how dark or fair your skin is, you need to protect yourself from UV damage.
If your skin is very dark, you might be okay with an SPF 15. But why take the risk? Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30.
Pick your time outdoors
UV rays from sunshine are strongest in the middle of the day, which means damage to your skin occurs faster. Protect your skin by staying indoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Stay in the shade
Whether that means lounging under an umbrella or providing your own shade with a big hat, avoid spending time in direct sunlight whenever possible. And don’t forget to protect your eyes. Choose sunglasses that filter UV radiation.
Don’t let skin cancer sneak up on you. Talk to your health care provider to learn what to look for on your skin. Then take a good look at all of your skin every month. And be sure to schedule an annual visit with a dermatologist for a professional skin exam every year.
1) Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Cancer and Skin of Color. Mona Gohara, MD and Maritza Perez, MD. Web. July 21, 2015.
2) The Washington Post. Many blacks are unaware of a skin cancer that primarily affects dark-skinned people. Marlene Cimons. Web. July 21, 2015.
3) Web MD. Skin Cancer in People of Color. Camille Peri. Web. July 21, 2015.
4) Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Types and At-Risk Groups. Web. July 21, 2015.
Reviewed July 24, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith