African Americans: Sunburn and Skin Cancer Risk

African Americans Can Get Skin Cancer

Women at the beach
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Many people mistakenly believe that the darker your skin tone the lower your risk for getting a sunburn or skin cancer.  Unfortunately this misunderstanding is not only widespread but dangerous as well.  Not only can African Americans or any person of color get sunburned everyone, no matter their skin color or tone, is at risk for skin cancer as well.  

African Americans and The Risk Of Getting A Sunburn

When you think of people who get sunburned, you typically think of a pale, freckled person maybe with light colored eyes, not someone with black or brown 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.   That also means that everyone is a risk of developing skin cancer.

Skin color and tone is determined by cells in the outermost layer of our skin called melanocytes which produce melanin.  Melanin is the pigment that gives both our skin and our eyes their color.  Every human has the same number of melanocytes, our skin color is determined by the amount of melanin those cells produce.  The more melanin produced the darker our skin color.

Dermatologists rank the risk of sunburn according to the Fitzpatrick scale:

  • 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 have a very large variety of skin colors and tones which depends on many things, including genetics and nationality.

 If you don't know your where you fall on the Fitzpatrick scale ask your doctor or esthetician next time you see them. Knowing your Fitzpatrick number can help you properly protect your skin from the sun year round.

So what does your Fitzpatrick number 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 if your skin is darker? Probably not. Nevertheless sunscreen isn’t optional. Just because it is rare for African Americans to get sunburns doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

Sunburn on black skin looks different than sunburn on fair skin –  a lot of the time the skin redness that shows up on lighter skin tones isn’t there on darker skin so it isn’t as obvious to people that they have gotten a sunburn.  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 no matter your skin color. Remember getting just one blistering sunburn ups your chance of skin cancer later in life.  So be sure to apply sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 each and every day.

African Americans Can Get 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 up on areas of the body that get regular sun exposure, but melanoma also can occur in less-typical places for those people with darker skin tones.  Places 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 with darker skin tones are diagnosed later sometimes too late for melanoma treatment.

Melanoma can be fatal if not treated early enough.

If you have black skin please don’t assume you’re risk of skin cancer is zero. Regularly check your skin for suspicious moles and see a doctor if something looks or feels different on your skin - anywhere on your skin or under your nails.

Updated by Hanah Tetro