UV rays are the part of sunlight that causes skin cancer and skin aging. Tanning beds also emit UV radiation.
Anyone can develop skin cancer, no matter how dark their skin. You can protect your skin by taking steps to avoid and protect yourself from UV rays.
Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. You should wear sunscreen all year around, and even on cloudy days.
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going out and use at least 1 ounce - about the size of a golf ball. Cover each part of your body exposed to the sun. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating. Spray sunscreen should be applied more often.
There are two types of sunscreen:
- Physical blockers sit on the surface of the skin and reflect UV rays away from your skin like a shield or mirror would. Their main ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, minerals that are ground into fine particles.
- Chemical sunscreens form a thin protective film that absorbs UV radiation before it penetrates the skin.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both types of sunscreens. Physical sunscreens tend to cause less irritation and allergic reactions. They are not absorbed through the skin but may be thicker and appear more white on the skin. Chemical sunscreen ingredients tend to be lighter and easier to apply. But they are absorbed through the skin into the body and can cause more irritation and allergic reactions.
Physical, mineral-based sunscreens are safer and more effective. There are many products with physical sunscreens on the market. MD Anderson does not recommend any specific brand of sunscreen. The important thing is to try different ones until you find one that you like and will use regularly.
If you must be outdoors, seek shade
It’s best to avoid going outdoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest. If you must be outdoors, seek shade and be sure to wear sunscreen and protective clothing. UV rays are present all year around and in every region of the country. They can damage your skin, even if it's cloudy.
Wear protective clothing and sunglasses
Dark, tightly woven clothing provides protection from the sun. If possible, choose clothing that has a UPF rating of 50+.
Pick a hat with a wide brim to shade your ears, neck and sides of your face. Sunglasses should have both UVA and UVB protection to help prevent cataract formation.
Avoid tanning beds
Tanning beds cause the same skin damage as the sun. They are not a safe alternative to sunbathing and being tan does not protect your skin from sun damage. Any amount of time in a tanning bed is too much time.
Be aware of changes in your skin
Suspicious spots or unusual moles could be a sign of skin cancer. That’s why it’s important to be familiar with your how your skin looks and the shape, size and color of any moles on your body. If you do notice new spots or changes, talk to your doctor about skin cancer screening. The earlier cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat successfully.
Certain people are at increased risk for skin cancer. If you fall into one or more of the following groups, talk to your doctor or schedule a skin cancer screening exam.
- More than 50 moles
- Red or blonde hair, fair skin, freckles and blue or light-colored eyes
- History of frequent or intense sun exposure
- History of tanning bed use
- One or more blistering sunburns
- Family or personal history of melanoma or skin cancer
Protect your kids from UV rays
Just one or two blistering sunburns can double your child’s lifetime risk for melanoma. Help your kids practice the same sun-safety routine as you do. But note, do not apply sunscreen on babies 6 months and younger, and keep them out of the sun.
Regular screening for those at high risk of skin cancer can detect the disease earlier, when it's most treatable.
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.
“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.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789
I was a real sun-worshipper growing up, so I spent a lot of time at the beach. Galveston Island is only an hour away from my hometown of Houston. And I was in a surfing club as a teenager that went all up and down the Texas coast. Back then, sunscreen wasn’t really a thing. So, I got a lot of bad sunburns.
That didn’t become an issue until my early 40s. I developed a little itchy spot on the crown of my head. The dermatologist who biopsied it in 1997 said it was squamous cell carcinoma, a fairly common type of skin cancer. But it wasn’t very big and she was able to shave it off pretty easily, so I didn’t worry about it.
Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with melanoma twice: once in 2012 and again in 2019. I am cancer-free now, thanks to surgery and radiation therapy back then and ongoing immunotherapy today. But melanoma is a much more serious type of cancer than squamous cell carcinoma. So, I am much more serious about protecting my skin.
I skipped sunscreen and hats despite my history of sun damage
I knew I’d accumulated some sun damage as a teen and young adult, but for many years, I still didn’t bother to wear sunscreen or hats. A coworker scolded me routinely about it, but I’d still go out and play golf with no protection.
As a result, my scalp got burned fairly frequently. But the way I saw it, I already had a dermatologist, so she could take care of anything that popped up. I’d been seeing her every three months for a decade by then. And I never missed an appointment.
My melanoma symptoms
Then, one day in February 2012, I saw a little round area right on the top of my head. It was kind of pink-ish, and looked like a keloid scar. I was having another little spot of squamous cell carcinoma removed at the time, so the dermatologist asked her husband, a Mohs surgeon, to come take a look. He did and said he’d remove it when the stiches came out.
By the time I returned to his office, the spot had gotten a little ugly looking. The edges were ragged, and it was about the size of a dime. Back then, I still had hair, so when I flipped it back for the surgeon to take a look, he said, “Oh, my goodness. We need to get that off right now.” He took a sample of the growth and sent it off to the lab for analysis.
The next day, my doctor called. The biopsy showed it was melanoma.
My shocking melanoma diagnosis
Even though I’d been getting a couple of spots burnt off every so often for years, I was still shocked by my first melanoma diagnosis. I said, “How can this be? We’ve practically been dating for the last 10 years.”
She said my bump was actually a mixture of cells. Some were regular melanoma, and others were desmoplastic melanoma. It was more aggressive and faster-growing than other skin cancers I’d had, so it needed to come off immediately. She was arranging the surgery right then.
My melanoma treatment
I had surgery to remove the melanoma on May 16, 2012. But afterward, my doctors couldn’t decide whether or not I needed additional treatment. I went to MD Anderson for a second opinion. My doctors there recommended five doses of radiation therapy.
I ended up having that treatment at MD Anderson, under world-renowned radiation oncologist Dr. Gunar Zagars (now deceased). That kept me cancer-free until my relapse last year. Now, I’m on an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab, and show no evidence of disease. But I know I’m one of the lucky ones. So, I try to be really careful.
I live in Clear Lake today, which is just 35 miles from the coast. So, I’m still at the beach quite a bit. But now, I know that sun damage is cumulative. So, I’m not as cavalier about protecting my skin. I put on a hat and wear sunscreen religiously. And I tell everyone I know to do the same.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Almost everyone has at least one mole, and you may already regularly check your moles for signs of change.
That’s a good idea since a changing mole can mean that something has gone wrong in the cells and a cancer is forming.
So, does that mean that moles are cancerous? Or that you will get skin cancer if you have moles?
What are moles?
Moles are clusters of melanocytes. These are the cells in our skin that give it color. These melanocytes are normally spread out between other skin cells. Their job is to transfer pigment, called melanin, to neighboring cells to help protect them from ultraviolet damage. When melanocytes grow as a cluster or group instead of spreading out, we call it a mole. It’s not clear exactly how or why our skin forms moles, but we think genetics and sun exposure may play a role.
Are moles cancerous?
Moles are not cancerous or dangerous. They are simply a group of normal melanocytes. But if their DNA gets damaged, it can cause them to turn cancerous. These cancerous growths of melanocytes are called melanoma. When the cancer cells in melanoma divide, they form a disorganized group or cluster that looks like a new or changing mole.
How do you tell the difference between normal moles and melanomas?
Moles usually form before you reach age 40, and they look somewhat similar. They are slow growing and don’t change quickly. The cancer cells in melanoma divide and grow abnormally, so a melanoma often looks like an “ugly duckling” mole. It will likely look different from any other brown spots on your skin, it may be new, and it may continue to change over time.
You can examine your moles using the ABCDEs guide for melanoma.
Ray and the Sunbeatables®
A Sun Safety Curriculum that includes fun and engaging lessons to help children practice sun safety habits.