Darker skin associated with later skin cancer detection and higher mortality

In collaboration with the Press Association

People with darker skin colouring are at greater risk of dying from skin cancer and associated complications than Caucasians due to late detection, new research has warned.

While individuals with fair complexions remain at the greatest risk of non-melanoma skin cancer, they are also frequently diagnosed and treated more quickly than others.

Due to the lower incidence of skin cancer among people of Asian, African, Hispanic or Native American origin the disease is often diagnosed later causing a higher risk of death.

"There's a perception that people with darker skin don't have to worry about skin cancer, but that's not true," explained Dr Hugh Gloster, lead author of the study.

"Minorities do get skin cancer, and because of this false perception most cases aren't diagnosed until they are more advanced and difficult to treat."

"Unfortunately, that translates into higher mortality rates," he added.

Darker skin has a higher proportion of skin pigmentation cells, known as melanocytes, which produce melanin, a chemical which both colours and protects the skin.

Higher levels of melanin can provide up to 13 times more protection against the suns harmful UV rays than found among those with fair complexions.

Ed Yong, cancer information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This study shows that even people with darker skin need to be aware of the signs of skin cancer.

"Although those most at risk of skin cancer are people with fair skin, lots of moles or freckles or a family history of the disease, it is also important for black people to check their skin regularly. "Black people are most likely to develop skin cancers on the palms of their hands or the soles of their feet. "Checking your skin for unusual changes is crucial as it can mean that the disease can be spotted earlier, when it is easier to treat.

"Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart campaign recommends that people check their skin regularly for changes that happen over weeks or months. Changes in size, shape or colour of a mole, freckle or a normal patch of skin should be shown to a GP without delay."

The data used in the study was collected from over 50 years of clinical records in the US.

In addition, the researchers noted that blacks were 8.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma - which occurs in the upper layers of the skin and is the second most common type of skin cancer - on areas protected from the sun than those areas of the body that are regularly exposed. This, the researchers say, implies that UV radiation does not play as important a role in the development of squamous cell carcinoma in minorities as it does in whites.

Nonetheless, Dr Gloster stressed that minimising exposure to the UV rays which can cause cancer, especially when the sun is at its peak and through tanning machines, was good advice for everyone.

"We need to increase public awareness of skin cancer among ethnic minorities if we're going to decrease skin cancer-related deaths," he said. "Prevention is key to fighting this disease."

The study was conducted at the University of Cincinnati and was presented at the American Academy of Dermatology's summer meeting in San Diego.

Find out about how your skin type affects your skin cancer risk on our SunSmart website