If you have dark skin, you may think you have natural protection from sunburns, sun damage and skin cancer. But the relationship between skin color and skin cancer is complicated.
“People with dark skin may have the misconception that they are immune to skin cancer because their skin has more melanin – or pigment,” says Ana Ciurea, M.D. “While they are less likely to get skin cancer, they are still at risk.”
What should darker-skinned people know about their skin cancer risk?
Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is much more common in white men and women than in Latinx or Black individuals.
But skin cancer is often detected in those with darker skin at later stages. So, their cancers are less likely to be treated successfully. For example, a recent study showed that only 67% of Black patients were alive five years after their diagnosis, compared to 92% of white patients.
Skin cancer is not harder to detect in people with dark skin. Yet, the lack of awareness among patients and medical care providers, along with the fact that the cancers develop in unusual locations, makes it less likely that cancers will be found.
“Skin cancer is highly curable if it’s found early,” says Ciurea. “The key is awareness.”
What skin cancer symptoms should darker skinned people look out for?
People with darker skin are more likely to develop skin cancer in areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, like the palms, soles of the feet, inside the mouth, in the groin area or under the nails. Between 30% and 40% of cases appear on the soles of the feet.
It’s a good idea to examine these areas regularly. And ask a friend, family member or your hairdresser to examine your scalp. Use a hand-held mirror for hard-to-see areas, and pay close attention to the feet, groin, hands and inside the mouth.
Look for dark spots that increase in size, change size, shape or color, bleed or become painful, as well as:
Non-healing sores (cuts or wounds)
Sores that go away and come back
Sores that do not heal quickly
Dark bands on the nails or around the nails
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer in darker skin. It usually looks like a pink, firm nodule. It is most likely to appear on the legs, feet, anal or genital areas.
“The most important thing to look for is change. Any suspicious mole or spot should prompt a visit to a professional,” says Ciruea.
Do people with darker skin need sunscreen?
Yes. Melanin helps protect against sun damage and reduces the chances of sunburn. But dark skin can burn, and anyone can get skin cancer.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen product that protects against UVA and UVB rays, with an SFP of 30 or higher. Apply it 30 minutes before going outside. Water-resistant sunscreen is best.
“Sunscreen helps, but the best way to protect your skin is to avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest,” says Ciurea.
If you have to be outside, wear protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses with broad-spectrum protection. And remember to reapply your sunscreen every two hours or after sweating or swimming.