Researchers have found that people with darker skin tones are not immune to skin cancer. Picture: Pexels
Researchers have found that people with darker skin tones are not immune to skin cancer. Picture: Pexels

Debunking skin cancer myths for darker skin

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Dec 10, 2019

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There is a commonly held belief among black Africans that skin cancer does not affect them.

But researchers have found that people with darker skin tones are not immune.

The Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) said everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic group, was at risk of getting skin cancer.

Although people with darker skins were less susceptible because their skin contained more natural melanin that protected against sun damage, everyone was at risk from the harsh African sun, said the organisation.

The World Health Organisation estimates that a 10% decrease in ozone levels would create an additional 300000 non-melanoma and 4500 melanoma skin cancer cases worldwide.

And it can take just 15 minutes for permanent sun damage to occur.

So the association is calling for South Africans to be more sun smart all year around.

Last week, the news of the death of gospel singer and pastor Neyi Zimu gripped the nation.

Zimu died as a result of skin cancer.

Dr Dagmar Whitaker - a specialist dermatologist, president of the Melanoma Society of South Africa and vice-president of the World Melanoma Society - said it was a common misconception that darker skin was less likely to develop skin cancer.

“Black skin has natural sun protection equivalent to an SPF 15; however as dermatologists, we only recommend sunscreen of SPF 50.

“Given the ozone hole and increased UV concentration, natural protection is suddenly not enough.”

Whitaker added that 20 or so years ago, skin cancer in darker skin was practically unheard of. 

“Now we see it more and more as people partake in outdoor activities amid an increased UV concentration. The other reason is that people are living longer and, therefore, the lifelong risk of skin cancer increases.”

Cansa reports South Africa has the second-highest incidence of skin cancer in the world, after Australia. There are approximately 20000 reported cases here per annum.

While those with fairer skin and albinism need to take extra precautions, it’s important to note that everyone can be affected.

Dr Marion Morkel, the chief medical officer at Sanlam, notes that skin cancer is among the top five most common cancer-linked claims.

Morkel said that while breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men remained the most common cancer-linked claims for Sanlam, melanoma was in the top five.

With hotter days that can damage your skin, experts say being sun smart is key.

Cansa gives advice on how to lower skin cancer risks:

  • Stay out of the sun between 10am and 3pm - stay under the shade of trees or an umbrella as much as possible.
  • Apply sunscreen correctly. It's important to know the best SPF for your skin type. Always apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you go outside and re-apply at least every two hours, after towel drying, perspiring or swimming.
  • Wear sunglasses with a UV protection rating of UV400.
  • Wear protective clothing and swimsuits and thickly woven fabric hats with wide brims - avoid caps where the neck and ears are exposed.

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