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Can People with Darker Skin Still Get Skin Cancer?

August 12, 2022

Two women, one with fair skin and another with darker skin lay on the beach with no sunscreen for an hour; who comes home with sunburn?

It may seem like a riddle, but the truth is both women are subject to the dangerous effects of unprotected time in the sun, from a sunburn to developing skin cancer later on.

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Who is at risk?

“While melanin, the substance that gives skin its color, does provide some protection against sun damage, skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of skin color,” says Dean David George, MD, medical director of cutaneous oncology at the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

The incidence of skin cancer in white people remains about 30 times higher than in Hispanic, Black or Asian people. However, cancer is usually diagnosed at later stages in people with darker skin tones, when it’s more difficult to treat. Those people, as a result, are more likely to die from skin cancer.

“More than 21% of melanoma cases in Black patients are diagnosed when the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. 16% are diagnosed when the cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes and other organs,” Dr. George says.

Adding to the delay in diagnosis, he adds, is the fact that people with darker skin tones are more likely to get skin cancer in areas not typically exposed to the sun. This includes the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet or the groin. They can also develop melanoma under their nails.

“Reggae singer Bob Marley actually died of acral lentiginous melanoma, a form of skin cancer,” Dr. George says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the five-year survival rate of melanoma in non-Hispanic Black people is 66%, compared to 90% in non-Hispanic white people. In addition, the American Cancer Society reports that one in three Black Americans diagnosed with melanoma will die from the disease, compared to one in seven non-Hispanic white people.

What can I do?

Dr. George suggests anyone going out in the sun take the same precautions no matter the color of their skin. Those include:

  • Avoid peak sun time from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or other activities.
  • Wear clothing covering the arms and legs, plus a hat to shield your face and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Check your skin monthly. Look for dark spots or patches, growths that have gotten larger or changed in shape, sores that are slow to heal or rough patches of skin. Be sure to check your nails, palms, soles of your feet, head and groin.
  • Schedule an annual body check with a dermatologist.

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