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Black People: Sunburn and Skin Cancer

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Black People: Sunburn and Skin Cancer
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I remember watching an old Oprah rerun that had an expert talking about sun and the skin. The expert said depending on how dark the skin was, many black people had a natural SPF level of approximately SPF 30 without even using sunscreen. Why then, would anyone with black skin wear sunscreen? Here’s why.

Black People and Sunburn

When you think of sunburn, you typically think of a pale, freckled person, not someone with black skin. But people with black skin can get a sunburn right along side their friend with pale skin. It’s true! Sure, it isn’t as easy to get a sunburn if you have dark skin verses fair skin, but the risk is still there. sun safety tips

The risk of sunburn has to do with the melanin in your skin. Dermatologists rank all of us in a skin pigment level depending on your melanin level. Melanin is the pigment in your hair, skin and eyes that give color. Those with lighter skin have less melanin than those with darker skin.

Where do you fit?

  • Type I: Pale white skin – always burns, never tans
  • Type II: White skin – Burns easily, tans minimally
  • Type III: White skin – Burns minimally, tans easily
  • Type IV: Light brown or olive skin – Burns minimally, tans easily
  • Type V: Brown skin – Rarely burns, tans easily and darkly
  • Type VI: Dark brown or black skin – Rarely burns, always tans, deeply pigmented

Re-read Type V and VI. Rarely, not never. People who fall into the types IV, V, and VI can look so different depending on many things, including nationality, so if you don't know your skin type, ask your doctor next time you go in.

So what does that mean for sunscreen and sun safety? It means you aren’t immune to sunburn no matter what anyone tells you. Are you going to get a sunburn every time you’re in the sun? Probably not. Do you need to stress about applying sunscreen every 2 hours so you don’t burn? Definitely less stress. But sunscreen isn’t optional. Just because it is rare doesn’t mean it won’t happen. how to treat a sunburn

Sunburn on black skin looks different than sunburn on fair skin – the redness isn’t there so it isn’t as obvious to people, but tightness, pain, skin that is hot to the touch and peeling later on are all indicators that you have or have had a sunburn. And getting just one blistering sunburn ups your chance of skin cancer. uva and uvb rays - what's the difference?

Black People and Skin Cancer

Another myth is that people with black skin cannot get skin cancer. This is flat-out wrong. There are multiple types of skin cancer, and yes, having black skin does make you less likely to get some of them, but you might be surprised to know that while it is rare for black people to get melanoma, those who do have it are more likely to die or get further complications from the disease. Did you know Bob Marley died of melanoma?

Typically melanoma shows itself on areas of the body that get regular sun exposure, but melanoma tends to show up in less-typical places in those with darker skin tones, such as the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and the fingernail bed.

Because of the misconception that black people can’t get skin cancer and because people aren’t informed that melanoma can arise in atypical locations in black skin, people are diagnosed later. Melanoma is a cancer that spreads and can be deadly.

If you have black skin, please don’t assume you’re risk of skin cancer is zero. Regularly check your skin and see a doctor if something looks or feels different.

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