Public Health & Health Systems

Whatever skin you’re in, cover up

Skin cancer is not a disease that threatens only fair-skinned South Africans. Darker skins are at risk too and everyone should take protection against the dangers of melanoma. by Tim Dodd

All South Africans regardless of their skin color, should take heed this summer when spending long periods of time in the sun.

Skin cancer, which is caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, is becoming more of a problem as the hole in the ozone layer (which filters out harmful ultraviolet rays) grows larger. As a result, people who spend long hours in the sun are becoming more susceptible to skin cancer.

The three main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, which develops near the base of the epidermis (outer layer of skin), squamous cell carcinoma, which lies closer to the epidermis, and malignant melanoma, which occurs in the cells that produce melanin, a protective pigment. Melanoma is the least common, but the most deadly of these.

Recent statistics published by the Skin Cancer Foundation show that one in 45 white males and one in 56 white females had a lifetime risk of developing melanoma. By contrast the lifetime risks in black males and females are one in 909 and one in 796 respectively. Despite this lower incidence, skin cancer, especially melanoma, is still a danger for the black population.

According to Ayesha Sasman, information specialist with the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) “malignant melanoma is definitely the biggest problem for black skin.” And according to the Cansa, blacks with melanoma are more likely than whites to have advanced disease. This is because the most common type of melanoma among blacks is acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), which tends to be more aggressive than the types most commonly found in whites.

Black patients’ susceptibility to ALM means that their chances of long-term survival with melanoma are typically much lower on the average.

The darkness of black skin, due to an abundance of melanin, does not mean that whole body is protected. According to Ayesha Sasman, melanoma is often found in black patients in areas of light skin “such as under souls of feet, palms of hands and under fingernails.”

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there are several simple ways to prevent skin cancer:

  • Avoid unnecessary sun exposure, especially between 10:00am and 4:00pm,the peak hours for harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation)
  • When exposed to sunlight, wear protective clothing such as long pants, long-sleeved shirts, broad-brimmed hats, and UV-protective sunglasses
  • Stay away from artificial tanning devices.
  • Examine your skin head to toe at least once every three months.

Also, one other important way to prevent skin cancer is the simple way of remembering to use sunscreen whenever going out into the sun. According to Sasman, “Using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 on black skin is the equivalent of using an SPF of 45 on pale white skin.”
-Health-e News Service

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