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John Whyte, M.D., MPH Headshot

Everybody Needs to Wear Sunscreen

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Well, summer is winding down. And many of you probably have a golden tan or still might be working on one. I hope most of those tans are from a bottle or a can! Please tell me you've been wearing sunscreen!

You know who doesn't wear sunscreen practically at all? People of color. That's right -- African American and Hispanics often don't believe they need to use sun protection -- and that's causing them to die of melanoma at an alarming rate. Although people of color develop skin cancer at rate much lower than Caucasians, when darker-skinned people do get skin cancer, they die more often than their white counterparts. According to the American Medical Association, the five-year melanoma survival rate is only 58 percent among African Americans, compared to 84 percent for Caucasians. That's a big difference, primarily due to the fact that when the skin cancer is detected, it has progressed to a deadlier stage.

Nationally, about one-third of Americans never wear sunscreen -- that number doubles for people of color. Nearly two out of three African Americans never wear sunscreen.

Unfortunately, many African Americans mistakenly believe that the melanin in the skin -- the pigment that gives them the darker color -- provides protection against the sun's deadly rays.

Indeed, it does provide some protection, but it's not enough. Without getting into a dermatology lecture, melanin does act as a natural sunscreen, and the more melanin, the more protection... to a point. For the typical person with dark skin, the more melanin probably acts as a SPF around 10-15 -- primarily defending against ultraviolet B rays. The melanin provides less protection against ultraviolet A rays which are also harmful. And who is satisfied with SPF 15? Personally, I like a minimum of SPF 30!

I've been at the beach with African American friends who say they don't need sun tan lotion or any sun protection except their sunglasses, because they've "never met a black person with skin cancer." Well, that's likely to change soon. And even some of my Caucasian friends will promote the myth that blacks or people that are already tanned don't need sunscreen by saying something like, "You're dark...you don't need to wear sunscreen." Again, they're wrong.

Doctors are at fault here too. They often do not perform regular skin exams. Be sure to ask the doctor to perform a skin exam at least once a year -- and yes, you do need to put on a gown for it to be done properly! You would be surprised by how many people come into the doctor's office and don't want to put on a gown. I know it's a bit uncomfortable but it is the only way to do a thorough skin exam. And skin is actually the body's largest organ!

So if you're African American or Hispanic, start putting on sunscreen as well as wearing a hat. In addition, be sure to check for any skin changes (change in color, texture, size) or moles in areas of the body that are have no pigment such as the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And don't forget to look at toe nails and finger nails for any unusual spots or stripes. (Obviously remove any nail polish first).

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