No Sun Damage for Dark Skin: A Deadly Assumption?

Brook Flagg

by Brook Flagg | August 4, 2011 @ 09:00AM

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Think that your dark complexion serves as built-in protection from sun damage? Think again. While people with darker skin may be less susceptible to skin cancer (it is statistically less common), they are still at risk; and if skin cancer does strike, it is often more aggressive and harder to treat, resulting in more deaths.

At Cincinnati University, lead researcher Dr. Hugh Gloster has said: "Minorities do get skin cancer, and because of this false perception most cases aren't diagnosed until they are more advanced and difficult to treat. Unfortunately, that translates into higher mortality rates."

The study may serve as a warning to those who mistakenly assumes their skin tone makes them immune to cancers. Experts advise people of all races and ethnicities to protect their skin from sun damage by staying inside often and using precautions like sunscreen when going outdoors, especially in the summer when UV rays are most powerful.

Dark Skin and Sun Damage: Some Truth to Theories

Dr. Gloster said there is some truth in the public’s ideas about dark skin and sun damage. He points out that the extra pigment in darker skin affords some added protection against UV rays, and therefore that skin is less susceptible to sunburn. The increased epidermal melanin in darker skin is a natural skin protection factor (SPF).

To illustrate, the study points out that an African-American individual with dark skin has a natural SPF of about 13 and filters twice as much UV radiation as the skin of the average-toned Caucasian.

In spite of this, Dr. Gloster told a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) in San Diego that doctors should make sure all patients, of all races, perform regular self-checks for skin cancers.

How Skin Cancer Appears on Dark Skin


Malignant melanoma, which is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, can make itself evident differently in people of different races and skin tones. Fairer-skinned people may notice a change in a sun-exposed skin mole; conversely, people with darker skin might notice the cancer developing on areas that are protected from the sun, such as the soles of the feet, palms of the hands and the skin beneath the nails. Less common, but still possible areas for melanomas in dark-skinned individuals are the mucous membranes of the mouth, nasal passages, and genitals.

Signs of melanomas include moles on the body (look for new or changing moles), and suspicious changes under the fingernails and toenails, such as brown or black colored stripes under the nail or a spot that extends beyond the edge of the nail.

By looking for these signs on a regular basis and seeking medical treatment if any of them appear, people with darker skin can protect themselves from any developing melanomas becoming more aggressive. Simple self-checks for skin cancer may make a significant difference in one’s health, no matter his or her skin tone.

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