Skin Cancer Affects Dark Skin Tones Too — Here's How To Protect Yourself

SPF isn’t optional.

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It’s a common misconception that wearing sunscreen isn’t necessary for dark skin tones. At one point in time, you may have heard from friends, family, or even conversations on social media that daily SPF application is optional because melanated skin is less prone to burns. The reality is Black skin cancer patients with melanoma are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed at a late stage than non-Hispanic white patients, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Furthermore, Black people with melanoma have an estimated five-year melanoma survival rate of 71% versus 94% for white patients.

So while you’ve probably heard some sort of variation of the adage, “Black don’t crack,” or that people of color have great skin and can look vibrant and youthful well into their elderly years, these widespread statements aren’t entirely true. Without a core skin care routine that includes sunscreen, dark skin tones are just as susceptible to being affected by the sun’s harsh rays, and the damage can range from premature aging like wrinkles to a skin cancer diagnosis.

To break down the dangers of unprotected sun exposure in melanated skin, experts share their insights on common challenges like hyperpigmentation, why skin cancer is hard to detect in this demographic, and how to find SPF products you’ll actually love wearing.

The Misconception About Dark Skin Tones & Sunscreen

One reason this common fallacy may exist is the belief that people with deeper complexions are naturally protected from the sun, thus making the need for SPF for white skin only. That is only partially true. While everyone’s skin produces melanin, those who have darker complexions are genetically predisposed to create more of it, and as a result, they have minor protection against the sun’s UV rays.

Dr. Naana Boakye, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bergen Dermatology in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., explains that the extra bit of UV protection does not make dark skin tones immune to skin cancer and aging. “Darker skin tones have a naturally higher SPF due to melanin,” she says. “Although darker skin is less likely to experience sunburn, the DNA is still just as susceptible to damage.”

Tosin Eyikogbe, MSN, FNP-C, a board-certified family nurse practitioner who is an aesthetic nurse specialist at Skin Spirit, notes that the lack of SPF products that cater to skin of color could have contributed to this myth. “Sunscreen isn’t only for people with fair skin because aging and UV damage is a universal issue regardless of your skin tone or type,” she says. But if something isn’t created with you in mind, you might believe it’s just not for you.

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Sun Exposure, Premature Aging, & Skin Discoloration

Being shielded from the sun’s dangerous effects is about much more than preventing sunburn. Darker skin tones still need protection from harmful UV rays to mitigate the risk of exacerbating common skin challenges like premature aging, hyperpigmentation, and melasma.

Premature aging, also referred to as “sun damage,” “photodamage,” or “photoaging,” occurs when the skin has been compromised due to prolonged exposure to UV rays, making it look visibly older before its time. Some of the common effects include wrinkles, age spots, loss of elasticity, and dryness.

Hyperpigmentation is dark areas of skin that typically takes the form of spots, dots, or small patches. And going without any sun protection can make this issue more pronounced and difficult to correct. “Hyperpigmentation diagnoses are cosmetic conditions that are not easy or inexpensive to treat, [which] is why sunscreen is important for all skin tones,” Sydney Givens, PA-C and founder of Skincare By Sydney says. “Sun exposure triggers inflammation, leading to the darkening of existing areas of hyperpigmentation and the development of new ones. This is particularly concerning for individuals with skin of color, as hyperpigmentation is already a common concern.”

Another condition that affects the pigment of certain areas of skin, melasma occurs when specific skin cells produce too much pigment. Givens explains how unprotected sun exposure intensifies melasma production. “Exposure to UV radiation from the sun stimulates melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells in the skin,” she says. “In individuals with melasma, this stimulation can lead to an increase in melanin production, making the patches darker and more pronounced.” The surrounding areas of the skin often remain lighter, creating a patchy, splotchy look.

Extended Unprotected Sun Exposure & Skin Cancer

Navigating your day-to-day without SPF also increases the risk of developing different skin cancers. Boakye explains the connection, “Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells triggered by overexposure to UV rays, including those emitted by the sun and tanning beds.”

The aforementioned belief that deeper complexions don’t burn in the sun or need sunscreen has contributed to decades-long challenges with skin cancer diagnoses and inadequate healthcare treatment. Dr. Nicole Lee, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Epoch Dermatology in Garden City, NY, shares reasons why skin cancer detection in darker complexions is less frequent but significantly more dangerous. “Due to this perception [that darker skin don’t develop skin cancer as easily], they may not feel the need to get annual skin cancer screenings. As a result, diagnoses are delayed, resulting in a poorer prognosis than if caught earlier.”

Healthcare professionals who aren’t properly educated in identifying skin cancer in these skin tones can also create a racially and culturally insensitive environment that perpetuates a cycle of misinformation and incorrect/late diagnoses. Givens emphasizes the importance of proper education and care. “Standard diagnostic procedures can be less effective in detecting melanoma and other skin cancers in darker skin tones due to differences in pigmentation and lesion appearance,” she says. “This can lead to missed diagnoses or misdiagnoses, further delaying appropriate treatment. Training healthcare providers to recognize skin cancer in diverse skin tones is a must.”

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How To Spot The Signs Of Skin Cancer

Taking stock of any changes in your skin is important so you can properly advocate for yourself when seeking care. Lee shares what to look for when doing a self-examination. “Non-melanoma skin cancers can present as wart-like growths that are scaly and rough, or pimples that do not resolve and begin to bleed,” she says. “In skin of color patients, melanoma often appears in unusual places such as the inner lining of the mouth, genitalia, palms, soles, and nails.” Since other skin cancers in darker complexions can be harder to spot, Givens shares signs to look out for, highlighting the importance of keeping an eye on any dark spots or legions that are completely flat and change with time. “Pay attention to moles that appear suddenly, change in size, shape, color, or grow rapidly,” she says. “Look for asymmetry, irregular borders, multiple colors or shades of a color within the mole, size larger than a pencil eraser, and evolution over time.”

How To Pick The Right Sunscreen

Darker skin tones have historically been excluded from the sunscreen category because there were limited options that didn’t leave a white, ashy cast behind. There’s still work to be done, but more and more brands are creating inclusive products that can be used on an array of complexions.

There are currently two categories of sunscreen filters approved by the FDA: chemical and physical. Boakye explains the differences. “Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen, contains zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of the two. This type of sunscreen absorbs and reflects sunlight by forming a layer of protection that serves as a barrier,” she says. “Chemical sunscreens contain carbon-based ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone among others, and work by absorbing UV light.”

To find an SPF you’ll love wearing every day, think about how it will fit into your daily routine as well as your skin type. “Those with sensitive skin, pregnant, or nursing may benefit from mineral sunscreens as they are gentler,” Eyikogbe says. “Chemical sunscreens often have added components that can aid in skin care goals like moisturizers for dry skin, retinols for addressing aging, and antioxidants like vitamin C for improved tone.”

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