Latinas and Skin Cancer: Facts You Should Know

Think skin cancer is not your problem? Think again.

Despite what you may have heard, it’s not just white people who are at risk for skin cancer. “The most common question I get from patients is, ‘Why did I get skin cancer if I’m brown?” says Puerto Rican dermatologist Maritza Perez, an associate clinical professor at Columbia University in New York. “They’re totally in shock.” That supposed immunity is just one of many popular misconceptions, says Dr. Perez, who helps us separate fact from fiction by debunking five common myths:

MYTH 1: Darker skin makes you less susceptible to skin cancer.

“Most skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet light,” says Dr. Perez, “and all of us, no matter what amount of pigment is in our skin, are going to receive those ultraviolet lights.” While melatonin can block a small amount, it’s definitely not enough protection. In fact, studies show that when people of color are diagnosed with skin cancer, it has often progressed to a later, more lethal stage because they think they’re not prone to it.

MYTH 2: A tan shields you from harm.

“Even if you have a tan, which you acquired by damaging skin cells, it isn’t going to protect you from accumulated damage,” Dr. Perez says. “You’re increasing the chances of cancer and aging.” And, she cautions, never visit a tanning bed—they increase the odds of developing melanoma in your lifetime by five times. Dr. Perez believes tanning beds should be illegal since they’re partially responsible for the dramatic increase in melanoma in young women. Spray tans are the best way to add color, she believes. “I tell my patients the only safe tan is a tan in a can.”

MYTH 3: Too much sun is the only cause of skin cancer.

“There’s a multiplicity of causes for the disease, and not understanding the causes can expose the Latina population to unnecessary risk,” says Dr. Perez. Some people are genetically predisposed to it, and other health conditions and viruses, such as human papillomavirus, are associated with skin cancer.

MYTH 4: Detection is the doctor’s responsibility

“Everyone needs to check their skin every month and see a dermatologist once a year for a skin body check,” Dr. Perez says. There are three types of skin cancer to look for: Basal cell carcinoma is a red bump with many little broken blood vessels on areas of frequent skin exposure, or a red rash that doesn’t heal; squamous cell carcinoma is a crusted red rash, or an ulcer that doesn’t heal; melanoma is a dark pigmented lesion with varied color and an irregular border.

MYTH 5: All sunscreens are equal.

Actually, some sunscreens offer far greater protection. Dr. Perez advises checking the label for three attributes: protection against both types of ultraviolet light, UVA and UVB; a minimum SPF of 30; and water resistance. Other tips: Reapply a shot-glass amount of sunscreen every two hours; avoid the sun at peak hours (10 to 4); seek shade and wear protection—a hat, sunglasses and clothing. “I have olive skin, and every day of my life I wear sun block,” she says.”