Experts point to a cultural lack of sun awareness and education among many ethnic groups as a factor. While Caucasians tend to be versed in the ABCDE warning signs of skin cancer (asymmetry, border irregularity, color, diameter and evolution) and are more likely to schedule regular skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist, it’s a popular belief among minorities that skin of color provides a natural shield and such vigilant care isn’t necessary. “Higher levels of melanin in skin affords you a certain level of protection, but people need to understand that it doesn’t circumvent the risk,” says Downie. “Until that message gets across, I think it’s going to be depressing when it comes to statistics and who dies from skin cancer.”
Results from a recent study on minorities and skin cancer reveal that message is still far from taking hold.
In that survey, 65% of minority respondents said they didn’t consider themselves at risk for skin cancer, while 62% of African American adults said they’ve never even worn sunscreen. Only a meager 31% of minorities have performed a skin cancer check, and 17% have had a full body examination by a dermatologist.
“The bottom line is that everyone needs to wear a full spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 daily and get a body check at least once a year,” says Downie, who adds that if you have a family history of skin cancer, it should be twice a year, and even more often than that for those previously diagnosed with skin cancers. “I have an under 35-year-old patient who just had a melanoma removed six weeks ago and already we think we’ve just found another one,” says Downie. “That’s unusual, but if you’ve had an unsafe sun history, these spots can pop up fast.”
Experts say environmental change is one reason skin cancer in minorities is soaring. “Ozone depletion makes today’s sun more damaging than ever,” says Dr. Wendy Roberts, medical director of Desert Dermatology Skin Institute in Rancho Mirage, CA.
And a culture seeped in an obsessive love of all things bronze has some entering tanning beds in search of even more color. “The tanning bed sun emits 12 to 15 times the ultraviolet radiation of the sun,” warns Downie. “I have patients who say that tanning gives them a ‘base tan’ of protection. Newsflash: A base tan is literally an SPF of 3.”