Myth-busting: Sunscreen, Skin Cancer and Skin of Colour

The question of whether people of colour should wear sunscreen or not is an ongoing discussion. Here’s what you need to know.

To sunscreen or not to sunscreen? That’s one of the questions I’m asked most often by patients of colour. And it’s easy to understand why. There are so many mixed messages out there on social media about whether people of colour should wear sunscreen or not. And many of the official guidelines have been created with lighter skin tones in mind. So what’s the right thing to do? It’s time to bust some myths.

Myth no.1: People of colour don’t need sunscreen

It’s true that sun-induced skin cancer is rare in skin of colour compared to people with lighter skin. This makes it tempting to think that wearing sunscreen is a waste of time for people of colour. But it’s not as straightforward as that. Darker skin can still burn with prolonged sun exposure. While this is unlikely to cause skin cancer, it can still damage your skin over time and can lead to hyper-pigmentation and premature ageing – which is something to be aware of. Wearing sunscreen can help protect against this.

Myth no.2: People of colour must wear sunscreen everyday

I believe it’s important to take a holistic, case-by-case approach when I’m advising people of colour about whether to use sunscreen or not. Afterall, skin of colour encompasses many different skin tones and there are many environmental and lifestyle factors to consider too. 

Living in a hot climate, having a lighter skin tone, spending a lot of time outdoors, and being concerned about hyper-pigmentation and signs of ageing would definitely be reasons why I’d suggest wearing sunscreen regularly. But if  you live in a cooler climate with less sunshine, have a darker skin tone, and generally spend little time outdoors then wearing sunscreen is probably not going to have much impact, if any.

If in doubt, always wear sunscreen. But I’d also advise taking a holistic approach when considering whether sunscreen should be part of your daily routine, or not. 

Myth no.3: People of colour can’t get skin cancer

We are used to hearing about the effects of sun exposure on lighter skinned populations in the news, in adverts, and on social media. This has done wonders to improve education,knowledge and outcomes around detecting, diagnosing and treating skin cancer. But it’s also led many people – including some medical professionals – to associate skin cancer with lighter skin tones only, overlooking skin cancer as an issue for people of colour. 

It’s important to be aware that sun exposure is not the only cause of skin cancer and that skin cancer can develop in any skin type. Not understanding this – or what warning signs to look out for – is the reason that when skin cancer develops in people of colour, it’s often not flagged by the patient and diagnosed by a doctor until a late stage. 

Myth no.4: Skin cancer is hard to detect in skin of colour 

This isn’t true. It’s just about knowing what to look out for. In skin of colour, the most serious forms of skin cancer often develop on the palms, soles of the feet, or the skin underneath fingernails and toenails. These are parts of the body that typically don’t have high exposure to the sun and it’s particularly important to keep an eye on these areas. However, skin cancer can appear anywhere and you should have any new or suspicious moles or growths checked out by a dermatologist as soon as possible. Other warning signs to look out for are patches of skin or a mole that has an unusual colour compared to the surrounding skin, or a mole with an irregular shape. 

While it’s true that in my work as a dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon I see very few incidents of skin cancer in people of colour, it doesn’t mean the risk isn’t there at all. The more informed everyone is, the better.