Can Dark Skin Protect You From Skin Cancer?

If you have a darker complexion, you may think you don't need to worry about skin cancer. To a certain degree, you're right. People with fair complexions have a much higher incidence of skin cancer. But your decreased risk may make you less aware of warning signs and not as conscious about protecting yourself the way that you should. And if you don't realize the signs, the long-term consequences could be even more dangerous.

Melanin-the chemical that gives skin its color-does help block UV rays. When skin begins to tan, it produces additional melanin to protect itself from harsh UV rays. Therefore, people with increased melanin do have a natural SPF that helps to filter these damaging rays. According to research that analyzed 50 years of skin cancer cases across North America, the incidence of skin cancer in African-Americans was much lower than Caucasians.

But the alarming statistics that this same research discovered was that even though African Americans were less likely to develop skin cancer, they were more likely to die from it, because it probably was not detected. African Americans are 8½ times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma on their palms, nail beds, and toes than on other parts of the body more commonly exposed to the sun. Melanoma-the deadliest form of skin cancer that kills nearly 6,000 Americans every year -is also very common on these parts of the body in people with darker complexions.

What Puts You at Risk

  • Family History. If anyone in your family has had skin cancer, you're more likely to develop it yourself.
  • Preponderance of moles. If you have more than 20 or30 moles on your body, you're at an increased risk for skin cancer.
  • Weakened immune system. Any condition that compromises your immune system can elevate your skin cancer risk.
  • Excessive sun exposure. No matter what color your skin, being out in the sun all day- particularly in sunny or high altitude environments-increases your skin cancer risk. Each time you allow your skin to burn, it makes your skin more vulnerable.

Ways to Protect Yourself

  • Wear sunscreen. Be particularly diligent about applying sunscreen to the lighter skin on your body, like your hands and feet.
  • Check your moles. Any change in size, color, shape, symmetry, its borders, or its texture can be a sign of cancer.
  • See a dermatologist regularly. The older you get, the more important it is to have regular checkups because skin cancer develops more frequently in older skin.

The good news is that most skin cancer is curable and treatable if detected early. Be sure to keep a close eye on your skin and see a dermatologist if you notice any changes.




Harper, Amanda. "New Research Shows Cancer Prevalent in Darker Skin." Health News: UC Academic Health Center. Web. August, 2006.

UHS "Melanoma." University Health Services: Tang Center at UC Berkley. Web. 2010.