Everything you should know about skin cancer in skin of colour

It is a common misconception that people with dark skin can’t get skin cancer. While skin cancer is less prevalent in dark-skinned racial groups, people of colour can still develop the disease. In fact, the survival rate for skin cancer is much worse in black people than it is in white people.

We looked at your top questions relating to skin cancer in people of colour and compiled everything you should know.

beautiful woman in the sun

Can people of colour get skin cancer?

Darker skin contains more melanin (the element that gives skin its pigment) which can help to naturally protect the skin from the sun’s harmful UV radiation that causes most skin cancers. People of colour are less likely to develop skin cancer because they have more protection but this doesn’t make them immune. Skin cancers grow very commonly in people of all skin types, including dark skin.


Why are the outcomes for skin cancer in black skin worse than in white skin?

Skin cancers in non-white racial groups tend to be diagnosed at a later stage which results in a worse prognosis. Studies have found that the average five-year melanoma survival rate is only 65 per cent in black people versus 91 per cent in white people, and that late-stage melanoma diagnoses are more common in Hispanic and black people than in white people.

Why? Firstly, there is not much awareness about the risk of skin cancer among people of colour. Many people falsely believe that dark skin equals skin cancer immunity. Secondly, health professionals less frequently screen their patients of colour because darker skinned individuals have less chance of developing the disease, so thorough skin checks are not at the top of the list during general check-ups. People of colour are therefore getting less frequent full-body skin cancer checks. And third, skin cancer in people of colour tends to develop in areas less exposed to the sun, so it’s harder to spot.


The most common location for melanoma to develop in people of colour is the lower extremities and particularly the soles of the feet.


Are skin cancers in people of colour always caused by sun exposure?

While the sun’s UV radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer and we see plenty of sun-induced skin cancers affecting dark skin, some skin cancers (such as melanoma) can develop for other reasons. For example, some melanomas are hereditary, which means if your parent, sibling, or child has had melanoma, your own risk increases by 50 per cent.


What skin cancer symptoms are different in skin of colour?

In white people, basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) are often a pink, pearly growth which may or may not be crusted. In black people, BCCs tend to be brown (or slightly pigmented) and slightly translucent.


How can people of colour avoid getting skin cancer?

Studies show much less frequent sunscreen use among people of colour, yet sunscreen is the number one preventative measure against skin cancer. Unfortunately, mineral-based sunscreens that are gentler on the skin tend to leave a chalky look which isn’t aesthetically pleasing for darker skinned individuals. It’s important to find a sunscreen that works for you and wear it every day. Other protection measures include wearing long sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses, and seeking shade.


Does skin of colour suffer the same effects of photo-ageing as fairer skin?

UV radiation causes permanent damage to the skin which results in lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, and sagging skin. This is known as photo-ageing. People of colour tend to have delayed and less severe photo-ageing. However, wearing sunscreen every day can help people of colour avoid another common concern: hyperpigmentation – spots of overly pigmented skin also caused by sun exposure.


How often should people of colour get a skin check?

Self-examinations are very important and must include the soles of the feet, the palms, the fingernails and toenails, and the genitals. Professional skin checks with a trained doctor should occur once a year at least, or any time you notice anything unusual on your skin such as a new or changing mole.