With summer in full swing, dermatologists are reminding people about the importance of protecting their skin.
While sunburns and skin cancers are more prevalent in Caucasians, people of color are also at risk but they are often diagnosed at a later stage, and as a result, have increased complications and morbidity, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
“Skin with pigment is less likely to burn than lighter skin tones, but it is a myth to assume that skin of color is immune to skin cancer—no one is,” Susan Massick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Verywell. “Because skin cancer may not be on everyone’s radar, not everyone is screened for it or seeks medical attention for skin lesions.”
Despite this, Massick said skin cancer is a very treatable disease and is often curable if it’s detected early and treated properly.
Here’s what you need to know to understand your risk for skin cancer, ways to protect your skin, and when it’s time to see a dermatologist.
There are three common types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. While these are most commonly seen in White people and those with lighter skin, the risk is not zero for people of color, said Prince Adotama, MD, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health.
Here is what each skin cancer can look like and who tends to develop each type.
According to Adotama, these different types of skin cancers are more common in lighter-skinned people because they have less melanin, a type of protective pigment that gives color to hair, skin, and eyes in humans.
People of color are "not as prone to UV damage that can then lead to mutations in the cells," because they have more protective melanin in their skin, Adotama said.
However, he reiterated that people of color can still get skin cancer, especially if they don’t take measures to protect their skin.
Other factors can contribute to why certain skin types are more susceptible to getting skin cancer. Massick said UV light leads to cellular damage and some skin types are unable to repair the damage.
“The lighter your skin, the less able your skin is to withstand high-intensity UV rays,” she said. "Light skin is also more susceptible to sunburns as well. UV exposure and blistering sunburns increase risk of skin cancer.”
One of the best ways to prevent skin cancer is to wear sunscreen, which helps protect the skin from harmful UV rays that are emitted by the sun, Massick said. The more consistently you apply sunscreen, the more protection your skin will have from the sun.
In addition, people who apply sunscreen consistently will be “better off in preventing and avoiding the changes from cumulative sun exposure, such as freckling and discoloration of the skin, increased fine lines and wrinkles, premature aging, and skin cancer.”
Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing your next sunscreen or sunblock.
Massick and Adotama recommend applying sunscreen about 10 to 15 minutes before heading outside for the day or attending any outdoor activities.
They also suggest reapplying sunscreen every two hours, especially if you will have prolonged exposure to the sun and heat, or if you’re sweating or swimming. Also, water-resistant sunscreens may only last 40 to 80 minutes so it’s important to reapply.
Beyond applying sunscreen, Massick said there are other ways to prevent sunburns and skin cancer, which include avoiding continuous or prolonged sun exposure, tanning beds, and peak intense sun hours which fall between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Adotama said people can also use other sun protection tools or items like hats, umbrellas, ultraviolet-blocking sunglasses, and ultraviolet protection factor (UPV) swimsuits or clothing to protect their skin from sunburns and skin cancer.
Lastly, informing the public and raising awareness, especially in communities of color is another crucial way to prevent sunburns and skin cancer.
Audrey Kunin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of DERMAdoctor, said showing what skin cancer looks like on darker skin might help people identify symptoms earlier. "Education to help raise awareness of the need to protect skin from the sun as well as informing the public that anyone can develop skin cancer is critical," she told Verywell.
If you notice any of these signs on your skin, it could be time to see a dermatologist. As a note, these are not the only ways skin cancer can appear.
In general, Adotama said people who have a lighter skin complexion or a known family history of skin cancer should visit a dermatologist regularly since they may have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
“Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, but it can be preventable and treatable. Be proactive with your health,” Massick said. “Protect yourself from the biggest risk factor—be mindful of the effects of UV rays, even on cloudy days and get screened by a board-certified dermatologist.”
While skin cancer is more common in individuals with lighter skin, some skin cancers including BCC and SCC are prevalent in other ethnic groups. If you notice any new or changing bumps, moles or spots on your skin, schedule a screening test with a dermatologist. Most skin cancers can be cured if they are treated before they have a chance to spread and worsen.