Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader's Question: If I have darker skin, do I need to worry about sunscreen? I never burn and I've heard darker skin has natural sun protection.
Sue's Response: I caught an episode of Oprah last week. Normally, it's simply entertaining. I love watching her give away free goodies and trips to Disneyland. However, the one I caught last week was meant to be less entertaining and more informative. Dr. Mehmet Oz, Oprah's resident go-to medical advisor, appeared in some snazzy scrubs and answered a variety of health questions that pertain to women.
At one point in the episode, entitled "Oz on Call," one woman asked if her tanning habit was really that dangerous. During this discussion, Oprah referred to the cultural perception that "black doesn't crack"—the idea that people with darker skin show fewer signs of age such as wrinkling and sun spots. Dr. Oz agreed, explaining, "Black-skinned individuals naturally adapted to protect themselves because they had too much sun." Due to time constraints, they then moved on to other topics.
While Dr. Oz didn't state anything incorrectly, my problem rests on the fact that the program moved too quickly to provide the amount of information people need regarding skin health. People with darker skin did adapt to the amount of sun present in their environments. However, this in no way means that people with darker skin or people who don't burn easily can ignore sun safety precautions.
People of color do have heightened natural protection against sun damage, but they also tend to have a higher mortality rate from skin cancer than people with paler skin tones. Often, this is the result of delayed diagnosis and treatment due to patients being unaware of symptoms or changes in the skin.
In darker skin, melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—occurs far more often than the less dangerous forms of skin cancer. Particularly, people of Asian, African or Native American descent tend to develop cancer in areas of the body that do not get exposed to the sun. These areas include the soles of the feet, the palms of the hands and fingernails. Often, these melanomas are mistaken for other ailments such as warts and fungi.
In addition, melanoma tumors originate in the skin cells that produce pigment. For this reason, melanoma tumors tend to be darker in color (either brown or black) and so add more confusion when it comes to diagnosis. Oprah's assertion of "black doesn't crack" does carry weight, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Be grateful for your naturally increased sun protection, but be careful about exposing yourself to unnecessary sun exposure.
If you spot any irregularities in your skin, consult a doctor—even if you believe your skin color protects you from the possibility of skin cancer. Remember to check the soles of your feet in particular, avoid the sun when its rays are the most dangerous (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and regularly conduct self-examinations.
Published On: March 05, 2007