Health, Medicine

Black Skin Less Susceptible to Sunburn, More At Risk for Deadly Melanoma

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By Rosemary Eng

Palo Alto, California — Can black people get skin cancer? Sure they can, though not nearly as often as white people; but when they do, it can be more deadly.

It’s generally accepted that melanoma skin cancer brought down reggae musician Bob Marley at the age of 36. (Medical records were never released.) The cancer developed on his toe and metastasized throughout his body.

Bob Marley reportedly died of skin cancer, a rare disease for blacks.
Bob Marley reportedly died of skin cancer, a rare disease but very deadly disease for blacks.

For African Americans, compared to other groups, melanoma skin cancer can develop in unexpected spots like Marley’s, under fingernails, under toenails, around the genitals, rectum, in the mouth and the eyes.  As to why these skin cancers develop in areas not exposed to the sun, “the jury is still out,” says Dr. Mona Gohara, associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, department of dermatology.

It’s more understandable why skin cancers develop in areas like the soles of the feet and palms of the hands in the African American population because that skin does not have the same dark, protective pigmentation, she said.

Online at, Dr. Maritza Perez writes, “darker-skinned people are more susceptible to acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), an especially virulent form of melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer) that typically appears on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.”

Dr. Ronald Moy, past president of the American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD), said skin cancer can form on the lid of the eye and even on the white part of the eye.

Lingering brown spots or sores in the mouth, bruises that don’t go away, should prompt a skin check up. “Everyone should do monthly checks on themselves, regardless of skin color,” Dr. Gohara says.  Delayed detection is how tumors become more deadly.

Frequently, said AAD member Dr. Ricardo Mejia, danger spots are noticed by family members or friends, who may say, “what’s this spot on your arm, on your leg?”

Baldness creates another risk. Dr. Mejia recommends applying sunscreen on bald spots. He said dermatologists in Florida are trying to educate hairdressers to evaluate questionable spots on the scalp.

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. About 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in the US every year. Melanoma is a less common skin cancer, but, the American Cancer Society reports, it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body (as Marley’s did). Melanoma skin cancer deaths account for almost 10,000 of more than 13,000 skin cancer deaths each year.

The Dermatology Academy recommends using every way to protect your skin from frying—clothing, hats, sun blocks and sunglasses. Check with your health insurance provider to see if dermatology skin checks are covered or start with your primary care physician.

Here are some online resources on skin cancer:

American Academy of Dermatology to learn about

  •         skin disease
  •         skin care
  •         how to find a dermatologist

The American Academy of Dermatology’s guide to free SPOTme skin cancer examinations by state.

(not available in all states)

University of Maryland Medical

Melanoma FAQs

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) sunscreen safety ratings and tips on what to do to make sunscreen your last resort


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