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Sun protection tips for people with dark skin

Rates of melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer, are on the rise in Canada. Diagnoses increased by over eight per cent from 2020 to 2021, and Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates in the country.Not long ago, a melanoma diagnosis was almost always fatal. Thanks to new targeted treatments, survival rates have significantly improved. The five-year net survival rate for Canadians is currently 89 per cent.

But that increased survival rate does not translate to the Black community, says Cole Harbour physician Dr. Yinka Akin-Deko.

According to recent data, the five-year melanoma survival rate for Black patients in the U.S. is just 70 per cent, a dramatic difference compared to the 94 per cent rate for white patients in that country. Canada has not historically collected race-based statistics on skin cancer rates, though this is starting to change.

“We know from the U.S. numbers that Black people are less likely to develop skin cancer,” says Dr. Akin-Deko. “But this is a double-edged sword. Despite the low rate of skin cancer in Black people, the death rate is much higher.”

Since melanoma is less common in people with darker skin tones, there have been fewer awareness campaigns about their risks. This can result in later diagnoses and increase chances for later-stage melanoma, which has a higher fatality rate.

Many skin cancer screening tips also focus on areas of the body that receive the most exposure to the sun, but acral lentiginous melanoma, a common form of skin cancer affecting Black people (and the cancer that killed Bob Marley), tends to occur in places such as the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet and under the nails.

There is also misinformation about the level of sun protection that people with Black or brown skin may have from natural melanin. While it is true that darker skin tones provide a sun protection factor (SPF) from 2 to 15, it’s not enough. A broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30 should be used (and re-applied every two to four hours) for all skin tones.

“That means everyone needs sunscreen every day of their life, even in winter or on overcast days,” advises Dr. Akin-Deko. “Make it part of your daily routine.”

She points to the successful Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide health campaign from Australia for additional sun protection advice.

These types of sun safety tips are easy to follow, though it can take extra work to find the right sunscreen. “Most of the sunscreen on the market is not made for darker skin shades,” she says. “It tends to leave a white or gray cast, or a blue tint.”

She encourages people with Black or brown skin to seek out sunscreen products that have been specifically formulated for them, noting the growing selection available online. “Find the one that works for you—and use it.”

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