Skin Cancer

3 Key Facts About Skin Cancer in People of Color

Originally published October 7, 2022

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 3 minutes

African American woman harvesting vegetables in a garden on a sunny day

People of color often think skin cancer doesn’t affect them — that’s not true. Learn about the unique signs of cancer on skin of color.

People with darker skin tones aren’t immune to skin cancer. Although pigment in the skin can provide some protection against the sun’s UV rays, it isn’t always enough to prevent harmful damage to skin cells.

“People of color often think they can’t get skin cancer or they’re not at risk for it,” says Nada Elbuluk, MD, a dermatologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “So, many of them don’t wear sunscreen, and many also don’t visit a dermatologist for a skin checkup.”

This misconception can be devastating: The American Cancer Society reports that Black patients with melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, have a 5-year survival rate of 71% versus 93% for white patients.

It’s why Dr. Elbuluk, who is also the director and founder of the USC Skin of Color and Pigmentary Disorders Program, shared 3 key facts that people of color should know about skin cancer.

Delays in skin cancer diagnosis can affect outcomes.

People of color develop skin cancer less often than those with lighter skin do. But “the three most common types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma — are all found in individuals with darker skin,” Dr. Elbuluk, who is a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, says.

She also points out that skin cancer in people of color is often diagnosed at later stages, when the disease may be more advanced and harder to treat.

“When diagnosed at a later stage, skin cancer is more aggressive, and there’s a risk of metastasis and a higher risk of death,” Dr. Elbuluk says. 

With skin cancer, a doctor will typically biopsy an area of concern, she says — and, if deemed necessary, surgically remove the cancerous area.

You should be mindful of any new or changing growth on your body; if you see something different, don’t ignore it.

Nada Elbuluk, MD, director of the USC Skin of Color and Pigmentary Disorders Program

People of color may develop skin cancer in unexpected places.

Since your face, arms and back are exposed to the sun more often, they are typically the areas where skin cancer appears. However, skin cancer in people of color may also develop in other areas, including the feet, the nail beds and even the eyes.

“A larger number of melanomas in persons of color are acral lentiginous melanoma, a rare type of melanoma that occurs on the palms, soles of the feet and nails,” Dr. Elbuluk says.

Potential skin cancer on your palms and soles can appear like a mole that changes both in color or shape, or like a noticeably dark spot.

On your nails, skin cancer can present as a pigmented streak — usually vertical in shape — or via a dark brown or black pigmentation that may extend onto the cuticle.

All skin tones require preventive care and regular exams.

No matter the color of your skin, it’s critical that you do a monthly self-exam of your skin — in both the typical sun-exposed areas as well as the soles of your feet, your palms, toenail and fingernail beds and even your genital area.  

“You should be mindful of any new or changing growth on your body; if you see something different, don’t ignore it,” Dr. Elbuluk says. “And make sure you see a dermatologist annually. If you’ve never had a skin checkup, I recommend scheduling an appointment soon.”

And, of course, wear sunblock to prevent skin issues. “People of all skin tones should apply sunscreen, with an SPF of 30 or higher, regularly and every two hours while outdoors,” Dr. Elbuluk says. It’s also a good idea to wear sunglasses, a broad-brimmed hat and protective clothing.

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At the USC Skin of Color and Pigmentary Disorders Program, you’ll get personalized and culturally sensitive dermatology care for a wide range of medical and cosmetic skin conditions that affect people of color.
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Anne Dullaghan
Anne Dullaghan is a freelance writer and editor.