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Skin Cancer In Black People: Are We Really Less At Risk?

Skin Cancer In Black People: Are We Really Less At Risk?


Have you checked your sunscreen expiration date lately? Do you need to replace your old sun protection clothing or that worn-out sun hat? Among other things, the month of May was Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which reminds us to prepare for the sunny days ahead, especially as summer approaches. The sun may be a great source for vitamin D but too much of it can cause damage to your skin.

Even though it is said that Black don’t crack, contrary to popular belief, Black people can have skin cancer. That is why, it is important to frequently examine your skin and also schedule a routine visit with your dermatologist/doctor for a complete skin exam.

How common is skin cancer in Black people?

Photo: Shutterstock

Skin cancer is generally not common among Black people or people with darker skin. This has led to the belief that dark and black skin tones are immune to the ravages of the sun. However, while the prevalence of melanoma––the most serious type of skin cancer––is lower on dark skin, its prognosis is even less favorable. The rampancy of melanoma has increased considerably in recent decades, in particular, because of our overexposure to the sun.

So what exactly is melanoma? Melanoma is a malignant tumor of melanocytes, the cells that make melanin. However, significant exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning machines promotes the deregulation of these cells. 

The prevalence of melanoma on dark skin


Cancer on white skin represents approximately 40% of all cancers, while on dark skin, they amount to about 2%. However, its prevalence on black skin also varies based on the region of the world. For example, on black skin subjects, melanoma diagnosis varies from 0.5 to 1.8 out of 100,000 in South Africa as opposed to 24.4 in light skin subjects. Its prevalence is 0.7 out of 100,000 in Togo and 1.6 out of 100,000 in the United States.

5-year survival rate decreased by skin color

Photo: Anna Shvets | Pexels

Melanoma on black skin is rare due to the photoprotection induced by melanin. However, this photoprotection may delay the diagnosis of melanoma on black skin, thereby worsening the prognosis.

A study from the University of Cleveland (United States) conducted in 2016 and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that the 5-year survival rate was higher in people with fair skin, mainly because early diagnosis of melanoma is more difficult on dark skin.

“African American patients sometimes think they are protected against melanoma because of their skin color. However, this is totally false: skin cancer affects all skin types, regardless of their color. And I would like to remind you that black skin can also get a sunburn,” Dr. Jeremy S. Bordeaux further explained, co-author of this study.

Types of melanoma + Prevention tips

Photo: | Alexandra Gordon

Remember that to avoid the occurrence of melanoma, it is essential to protect yourself from the sun. This means you have to use sunscreens with at least an SPF of 30, and it should be re-applied every two hours and after each swim. It is also recommended that you wear sunglasses, a hat, and light-colored clothing during extended exposure to the sun. Also, avoid exposing yourself to the sun between noon and 4 p.m., when the sun is most dangerous.

Finally, be sure to inspect any moles regularly and if you notice any irregularity—a diameter greater than 6 millimeters, a color change, or an elevation—consult a dermatologist quickly.

Check your sunscreens

Photo: Arthur Pereira | Unsplash

Do not use expired sunscreens. This is because they lose their potency due to the breakdown of the active chemical UV filters in them. These chemical filters are very fragile and are known to break down quickly over time. Also, if your sunscreen has been stored in abusive conditions (think hot car or cold temperature), you should replace it.

When replacing your sunscreen, make sure it is water-resistant. It would be best if you had it on for swimming, gardening, and hot, sweaty days. Water resistance is rated at 40 minutes or 80 minutes of sun exposure. This means that with 80 minutes of sunscreen, you can swim or sweat profusely in the sun and still be protected. Cover your skin as a first strategy and apply sunscreen to exposed skin. This is intelligent sun protection that can save your life in the long run.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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