Blacks, as well as others who tend to have darker complexions, don’t have to worry about sunscreen – the higher levels of melanin in their skin is enough to protect them from potentially-harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Right?
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and while whites tend to get it more, anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of their skin color.
“Cancer is harder to detect on darker complexions, so by the time it is found, it may have progressed further,” says Fran E. Cook-Bolden, M.D., director of Skin Specialty Dermatology and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
In fact, many patients, and even some physicians, have subscribed to the notion that non-whites don’t get skin cancer, which is just one of the reasons why people of color tend to be diagnosed with skin cancer at more advanced, and often more fatal, stages.
Just think: the legendary reggae musician Bob Marley died at 36 from an aggressive form of melanoma after his symptoms under his toenail were dismissed as a soccer injury.
The Role of Melanin In Sun Protection
Very simply, melanin is a dark brown to black pigment that occurs in the hair, skin, and irises. Melanin is what causes the skin to tan when it’s exposed to sunlight.
Melanin helps protect the skin against effects of the sun such as skin cancers and premature aging. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, melanin provides a sun protection factor (SPF) approximately equivalent to 13.4, compared to 3.4 in white skin.
Sun Protection 101
While melanin does offer some sun protection, that 13.4 isn’t nearly enough to protect against the UVA and UVB rays that cause cancer and age skin. Plus, because cells affected by UV rays produce more melanin, tanning is actually a sign that skin damage has already occurred.
According to the CDC, the sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes.