African-Americans and skin cancer: Do I need sunscreen?

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Sunscreen: Do I need it if I have dark skin?

Question

My husband, who is African-American, refuses to wear sunscreen when he is outdoors. He says his naturally dark skin protects him against sun damage. Is he correct?

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Answer

No. Everybody should wear sunscreen.

Although people with dark skin may not sunburn as easily as those with fair skin, they are still at risk of skin damage from excessive sun exposure. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends routine use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater for all people — regardless of skin color.

Skin color is determined by the number, distribution and type of pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) in the skin. Dermatologists refer to the degrees of pigmentation in skin as "skin types." Skin types range from very little pigment (type 1) to very darkly pigmented (type 6).

It is true that dark skin provides some protection against sun damage. People with light skin types have a much higher incidence of skin cancer than do people with dark skin types. But dark skin is not a guarantee against skin cancer. People with dark skin, hair and eyes can — and do — get skin cancer. Particularly vulnerable areas include under the fingernails and toenails, on the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet — where skin is lighter.

Like those with light skin, people with dark skin are also at risk of premature skin aging from excessive exposure to the sun. This includes wrinkles and mottled or uneven skin pigment.

So regardless of your skin type, it's important to protect your skin in the sun by limiting sun exposure and wearing sunscreen and sun-protective clothing when outside.

Classification of skin types
Skin type Description
Type 1 Always burns, never tans (pale white skin)
Type 2 Always burns easily, tans minimally (white skin)
Type 3 Burns moderately, tans uniformly (light brown skin)
Type 4 Burns minimally, always tans well (moderate brown skin)
Type 5 Rarely burns, tans profusely (dark brown skin)
Type 6 Never burns (deeply pigmented dark brown to black skin)

Source: American Academy of Dermatology

Last Updated: 06/19/2006
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