Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Research suggests that at least 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by 70 years old.

The condition is also diagnosed in more than 9,500 people every day in the United States. Additionally, more than two people die of skin cancer each hour.

Although people with lighter skin tones are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer, anyone can get it. Furthermore, people with darker skin tones are often diagnosed at a later stage, which increases their risk of dying from skin cancer.

However, skin cancer is highly preventable. It can also be cured in 99 percent of cases, as long as it’s treated early.

In honor of Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May, this article will focus on the importance of protecting your skin and why it’s essential to be proactive if you notice any unusual skin changes.

Skin cancer involves the irregular growth of malignant (cancerous) skin cells.

In general, skin cancer is classified as:

There are different types of melanomas, such as:

  • Superficial spreading melanoma. This is the most common type of melanoma, accounting for about 70 percent of all cases. It grows horizontally on the top layer of skin before moving into deeper layers, tends to have an irregular shape and uneven borders, and can be raised or flat. In males, it most often appears on the chest, abdomen, back, head, and neck, while in females, it appears more often on the legs.
  • Nodular melanoma. About 15 percent of all melanomas are nodular melanoma. This type of melanoma may look like a raised bump or growth. Unlike other types of skin cancer, nodular melanomas typically develop as a new growth rather than from a preexisting mole. It’s an aggressive type of skin cancer and grows faster than other types of melanomas.
  • Acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM). Although it can develop in all skin tones, acral lentiginous melanoma is the most common type of melanoma in people with darker skin tones and those of Asian descent. This type of melanoma often looks like a dark spot that has a clear border between the darkened area and the surrounding skin that’s a regular color. It often appears on or around the hands, feet, or nail beds.
  • Subungual melanoma. Subungual melanoma is a type of melanoma that begins in the nail matrix and may start off looking like a vertical bruise under the nail. Although it’s a relatively rare melanoma, it can lead to serious complications. That’s why it’s important to get it diagnosed early.

In people with light or fair skin, melanoma can often be found on the trunk or lower legs. For People of Color, it often occurs in areas that get little sun exposure, usually on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and nails.

In most cases, skin cancer is caused by ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. UV light damages DNA, resulting in cell mutations. UV light also decreases the immune system’s ability to get rid of cancerous cells.

Skin cancer is a highly preventable condition. This is because many of the causes can be avoided or limited through certain lifestyle habits.

The following strategies can help reduce skin cancer risk for people of all skin tones.

Tips for protecting your skin

  • Wear sun protection. Apply sunscreen and lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher every day. Wear these products all year round, even when it’s cloudy or rainy.
  • Wear sunglasses. Choose sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays when you’re outside during the day. Pick a wraparound pair, if possible.
  • Wear a hat. Protect your face, neck, and ears by wearing a hat with a wide brim and dark fabric. The fabric should be tightly woven.
  • Stay in the shade. Whenever possible, stay in shady areas to prevent excessive or intense sun exposure.
  • Avoid direct sun exposure. UV rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If possible, stay inside during these times.
  • Avoid tanning. Tanning in the sun or in tanning beds can increase your risk of skin cancer.
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Paying attention to your skin can help you notice early signs of possible skin cancer. This involves regularly checking your skin for the following:

  • new growths
  • sores that do not heal
  • changes in moles

You can do this by doing regular monthly skin self-exams, which involve the following steps:

  1. Face a mirror.
  2. Check your upper body, including your face, ears, neck, chest, and stomach. This includes the skin beneath your breasts.
  3. Next, examine your underarms, all sides of your arms, both sides of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your fingernails. Look for dark lines under your fingernails.
  4. Sit down and examine your lower body, including the top of your legs and feet.
  5. Check the skin between your toes and under your toenails.
  6. Using a hand mirror, examine the back of your legs, including the back of your thighs and calves.
  7. Check the bottom of your feet.
  8. Use the mirror to examine your butt, genital area, back, and back of your ears and neck.
  9. Check the top of your head, parting your hair as needed.

The ABCDE rule

When examining your skin, follow the ABCDE rule. This is a guideline for what to look for:

  • Asymmetrical. Cancerous spots are often irregular in shape.
  • Border. A spot may be cancerous if its border is irregular, jagged, pink, red, or darkened.
  • Color. Cancerous spots may be uneven in color. But in some cases, such as nodular melanoma, they can be one color.
  • Diameter. A mole or spot that’s bigger than a pea may indicate skin cancer.
  • Evolving. If a spot or mole is cancerous, it will likely change in size, shape, or color over a few months or years.

If you notice any changes to your skin, particularly with regard to the types of changes mentioned above, it’s important to contact a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

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You may be more likely to develop skin cancer if you:

  • have a lighter skin tone
  • have blue or green eyes
  • have blond, red, or light brown hair
  • have freckles
  • have many moles
  • have irregular or big moles
  • are older
  • are frequently exposed to the sun
  • live in a tropical or subtropical region
  • live at high altitudes
  • have a compromised immune system
  • have a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma
  • have a personal history of skin cancer
  • have received an organ transplant
  • take medications that make your skin more sensitive to the sun

These factors can put you at an increased risk for skin cancer, regardless of the color of your skin.

Skin cancer can happen to people with darker skin tones

It’s a myth that people with darker skin tones cannot get skin cancer. This myth is likely due to the higher overall skin cancer rates in people with lighter skin tones.

Melanin, a skin pigment, can filter UV radiation. People with darker skin tones tend to have more melanin and are less likely to develop skin cancer.

For example, among white people, melanoma is diagnosed in more than 33 per 100,000 people. The rate is 4.5 per 100,000 in Hispanic people and 1 per 100,000 in Black people.

Still, people with darker skin tones can get skin cancer. In these cases, skin cancer is often more serious due to late detection and diagnosis. Because of the often late diagnosis, there is a higher risk of death from skin cancer in People of Color.

For example, while the prevelance of melanoma has risen within the white population by almost 20 percent in the past 20 years, a review published by the American Academy of Dermatology found that the 5-year survival rate for the non-white population is 70 percent, while for the white population it is 92 percent.

Skin cancer is a highly preventable form of cancer. It can affect people of all skin tones. However, skin cancer in people with darker skin tones tends to be diagnosed later, when it’s harder to treat.

To reduce your risk of skin cancer, apply sunscreen all year round and try to limit sun exposure. Wear protective clothing and accessories, like wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses.

It’s important to do monthly self-exams and get annual skin checkups when you visit a doctor. These habits can help ensure that skin cancer is detected and diagnosed early, when it’s easiest to treat.