Skin Cancer in People of Color: Risks and Warning Signs

As the most common type of cancer in the United States, skin cancer is a danger to everyone. Although people with lighter skin colors can find themselves at greater risk, skin cancer in people of color is still a concern.

When people of color get a skin cancer diagnosis, it is often in the later stages. This is much more dangerous because later-stage cancers are more difficult to treat. It is also important to remember that people of color are more likely to get skin cancer (melanoma) that is not usually related to sun exposure, such as acral or mucosal melanoma.

Finding skin cancer early and screening regularly is important. Most skin cancers are curable, and early detection leads to easier treatment.

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What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer in People of Color?

The risk factors for skin cancer in people of color include:

  • Having many small moles (more than 50) or several very large moles.
  • A family history of unusual moles, whether in size, shape, or coloring.
  • A family history of skin cancer.
  • A personal history of skin cancer.
  • Many past instances of sun damage or blistering sunburns.
  • Old age.
  • A weakened immune system, such as from cancer treatment or other medications that may suppress the immune system.
  • Exposure to sunlight for long periods of time or high exposure to UV rays, such as from tanning beds.
  • A history of radiation treatment.
  • Exposure to arsenic.

What Are the Warning Signs for Skin Cancer in People of Color?

The biggest warning sign for skin cancer is any change in your skin. For people of color, the places on the body where skin cancer most often occurs are less sun-exposed areas, like the lower extremities. The spots to check most frequently are spots that you may not always think of:

  • Palms of hands.
  • Soles of feet.
  • Fingernails and toenails.
  • Inside the mouth.
  • Inside the nose.
  • Groin and genital areas.

Signs and symptoms for skin cancer in people of color

The warning signs of skin cancer in people of color include:

  • New growth, spot, or bump.
  • Change in a mole.
  • Sore that isn’t healing or that keeps returning — especially around a past injury.
  • Darker patches of skin that may grow or change.
  • Thicker, scaly skin patch.
  • Rough or dry skin patch.
  • Dark line under or around a fingernail or toenail.

A warning sign for skin cancer for people with lighter skin colors may be a pink, pearly growth. However, in people of color, this could be a brown, slightly translucent growth — which is harder to see, easier to miss, and not as well known to look out for. Keep this difference in mind, and know that the varied colors in the growth can help identify it as a risk.

How to tell if a mole or spot has changed

You can use the ABCDEs of moles to help you check for warning signs of skin cancer:

A: Asymmetrical. Look for an odd shape. If you cut the mole or spot in half, would each side look different?

B: Border. Look for irregular or jagged borders. Does the border seem undefined, uneven, or scalloped?

C: Color. Look for moles that may have different coloring than others. Is the color uneven? Or does it have multiple colors?

D: Diameter. Look at the size of the mole. Is it larger than a pea (about a quarter-inch)?

E: Evolving. Look at the mole on a regular basis. Has it changed within the past weeks or months?

How Can I Prevent Skin Cancer?

Knowing your own skin will help alert you to any changes. Go to regular screenings to have your skin checked and consult with your doctor so you can act quickly.

Outside of the doctor’s office, here are some things people of color can do in everyday life to help reduce their risk of skin cancer:

Sun safety

Sometimes, sun exposure is less of a factor in skin cancer for people of color, but UV rays are definitely still a threat. Protect yourself from UV rays all year round:

  • Avoid direct sunlight for prolonged periods by hanging out in the shade.
  • Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Use a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face, scalp, ears, and neck.
  • Wear shoes that cover the whole foot.
  • Try sunglasses that wrap around and protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • And most importantly, never forget your sunscreen!

For people of color, we recommend sunscreen that has broad spectrum protection, SPF 30 or greater, and water resistance. Apply it regularly, every two hours, even on cloudy days.

Regular self-exams

Examine your skin every month using a full-length mirror. Check your body thoroughly, including those hard-to-see places. Ask a partner to help. And if you are going to the barber or hairdresser, ask them to alert you if there are any changes in the skin of your scalp.

Tanning without UV

Tanning beds, booths, sunbeds, and sunlamps expose you to high levels of UV rays. These are extremely harmful to the skin and are known to cause skin cancer. Avoid them. If you are looking for a darker tan, you may find that self-tanners are a safer option. Just be careful with how they react to your skin. And remember, self-tanners do not provide any sun protection.

If you find any warning signs of skin cancer or have a concern about your risk factors, reach out to a dermatologist right away. They can help answer your questions and get you the treatment you need.

American Academy of Dermatology. Skin Cancer in People of Color. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Link

Andrew Alexis, MD, MPH. Ask the Expert: Is There a Skin Cancer Crisis in People of Color? Skin Cancer Foundation. Link

Andrew Alexis, MD, MPH. Skin Cancer in People of Color. Skin Cancer Foundation. Link

Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. Basic Information About Skin Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link

Marissa Fors, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C, C-ASWCM, CCM. Skin Cancer and People of Color. CancerCare. Link

PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Skin Cancer Prevention. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Link

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