Dark Skin and Skin Cancer Risk

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

People with brown or dark skin, including black, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans, may think they are not at risk for skin cancer because they do not "tan." People with darker skin have a lower risk of skin cancer but there is still a risk. They are also more likely to die of the disease than someone with fair skin due to later diagnosis and treatment. Bob Marley is one example of a well-known, dark-skinned person who died of melanoma.

Dark skin is better at protecting itself from the sun than light skin, but it can become hyperpigmented and develop skin cancer. Experts say that this is especially true after an outbreak of acne, eczema, or any other inflammatory process. Dermatologists advise that darker-skinned people should use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater every day. Having said this, melanomas in darker-skinned people actually tend to happen in areas that are not exposed to the sun, such as the buttocks, genitals, the bottom of the feet, and under the fingernails or toenails. This is one reason these cancers may go undiagnosed- they don't start in the typical skin cancer areas.

A thorough skin check should be done regularly and include all parts of the body (including the scalp and other areas under hair, in between toes and fingers, nails, and soles/palms of the feet and hands). This is something you can do yourself or with a partner. The American Academy of Dermatology has a helpful guide to performing a skin exam.

If you have dark skin, talk with your healthcare provider about your risk of skin cancer, ways you can help prevent it and be sure to keep up with your yearly dermatologist appointment.

References

American Academy of Dermatology. “Dermatologists provide recommendations for preventing and detecting skin cancer in people of color.” News release issued February 4, 2014.

American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer in people of color. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common/melanoma/skin-color 

Gloster HM and Neal K. “Skin cancer in skin of color.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2006;55(5):741-60.

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