It’s not quite summer but we’ve already had near 100 degree temperatures in St. Louis and across the country. Of course, that means we are spending more time outside enjoying the extra hours of sunshine.
Over the past two decades, messages about the importance of protecting the skin from excess sun exposure have substantially increased. Products with sunscreen or sunblock are readily available in most areas and are included in many skin care products. Unfortunately, the messages regarding whether people of color should use sunscreen have been inconsistent.
One of the most important reasons to protect your skin from the sun is to prevent skin cancer. People of color have lower rates of skin cancer, mostly due to melanin- the chemical responsible for skin color. Melanin also protects the skin from sun damage. The more melanin you have, the darker your skin and the more natural protection you have from the sun.
Although it’s great that melanin protects from the harmful effects of the sun, it also blacks the benefit of the sun which is to activate vitamin D. Because many people of color have low vitamin D levels, scientists and health care providers have to weigh the risks and benefits of sun exposure for people of color.
Below are some important facts about skin cancer.
-Although African Americans are less likely to get skin cancer, they have more complications and higher death rates compared to whites.
-Skin cancer is often divided into two category: melanoma and non-melanoma.
-Basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer (both non-melanoma) are the two most common types of skin cancer. Squamous cell cancer is more common than basal cell cancer in people of color.
-Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer.
-Although melanin provides some protection from the harmful effects of the sun, everyone has some risk of skin cancer.
No one knows your body better than you so examine your skin on a regular basis but don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you look at hard to see places. If you notice something new or an old spot that seems to be changing, make a note of the size and location or take a picture of it.The American Academy of Dermatology and other organizations advise that you look at the ABCDEs of moles or other spots.
If you have a mole or skin lesion with any of the following, see your health care provider. A- Asymmetry; one half is different from the other. B- Borders are irregular or poorly defined. C- Color is different from one area to another. D- Diameter; size is more than a ¼ inch or 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser). E- Evolving; growing or changing shape or color.
To protect yourself from skin cancer, whenever possible, avoid direct sun exposure during peak sun hours, typically between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. If you will be in the sun for more than 15 minutes, use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Remember to reapply every two hours and after swimming. Wear a hat and clothing to protect your skin from the sun.
It is also important not to burn, to avoid tanning beds, and to be aware of any changes in your skin. Melanoma usually begins as an abnormal mole. For early detection, make sure to examine your skin once a month to look for any new growths or changes in existing lesions. If you identify a skin change or are concerned about your risk, talk to your doctor.
If you are concerned about getting enough vitamin D, taking a daily supplement of at least 400IU daily (800IU daily if you are older than 50 years).
Remember that everyone has some risk of getting skin cancer although blacks are less likely to develop it.