Between 40 and 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer at least once. More than half of skin cancer-related deaths occur in folks age 65-plus. The longer people live, the more likely they are to develop skin cancer, and the greater their chances of dying from it. Even though skin cancers are less prevalent among African Americans when it DOES occur, it tends to be diagnosed later and, as a result, has a worse prognosis.

One study, for example, found an average five-year melanoma survival rate of only 65 percent in Black people versus 91 percent in white people. Another showed that late-stage melanoma diagnoses are more common in Hispanic and Black patients than in non-Hispanic white patients.

Where do skin cancers occur in people of color?

As far as healthcare providers, many tend to be less suspicious when it comes to looking for skin cancers in Blacks because the chances of it are smaller. So these patients may be less likely to get regular, full-body skin exams.

The places on the body where skin cancers tend to occur in African Americans are often in less sun-exposed areas, like on the bottom of the foot, lower leg, and palms. This cancer may also begin under a nail, around the anus, or on the genitals is a common location for melanoma in these patients. Examine hard-to-see areas like the top of your head and back by using a handheld mirror or asking a partner to check these areas.

It must be understood, melanin does offer some natural protection against the risk of skin cancers from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but everyone, of any complexion, is still at risk for sun-related skin cancers.

Everyone should get a full-body examination from a dermatologist once a year — or any time they see something unusual, such as a new or changing growth or mole or, particularly in skin of color, a sore that doesn’t heal. Unfortunately, most people of color are not doing this.–Andrew Alexis, MD, MPH, is chair of the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West in New York City

What to look for


Skin cancer can be spotted early if you take the time to look for any suspicious changes in your skin. Performed monthly, you can find changes to the spots on your skin, which could be skin cancer. When treated early, treatment often cures skin cancer. In the later stages, skin cancer can turn deadly, and treatment can be difficult. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, you should look for the following:

  • Dark spot, growth, or darker patch of skin that is growing, bleeding or changing in any way
  • Sore that won’t heal or heals and returns
  • Sore that has a hard time healing, especially if the sore appears in a scar or on skin that was injured in the past
  • Patch of skin that feels rough and dry
  • Dark line underneath or around a fingernail or toenail

How can you reduce skin cancer risk?

Seek shade whenever possible. The sun causes many skin cancers.

Wear clothing that protects your skin from the sun. A wide-brimmed hat can shade your face and neck. You also want to wear shoes that cover the entire foot. African Americans often develop skin cancer on their feet.

Wear sunscreen. Just because your skin is rich in melanin does NOT mean you shouldn’t use sunscreen! Dermatologists recommend that African Americans use sunscreen that has:

  • Broad-spectrum protection
  • SPF 30 or greater
  • Water resistance

Be sure to apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. Be sure to apply sunscreen every single day, even when it’s cloudy.

When outdoors, reapply sunscreen. You want to reapply:

  • Every 2 hours
  • After sweating or getting out of the water

Never use tanning beds or sunlamps. These emit harmful UV rays, which can cause skin cancer.