Debunking Actinic Keratosis Myths: Are Patients With Darker Skin At Risk for Actinic Keratoses?



Myth: Actinic keratoses are only seen in patients with lighter skin

Actinic keratoses (AKs) are precancerous lesions that may turn into squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated. UV rays cause AKs, either from outdoor sun exposure or tanning beds. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, AKs are more likely to develop in patients 40 years or older with fair skin; hair color that is naturally blonde or red; eye color that is naturally blue, green, or hazel; skin that freckles or burns when in the sun; a weakened immune system; and occupations involving substances that contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as coal or tar.

A 2007 study compared the most common diagnoses among patients of different racial and ethnic groups in New York City. Alexis et al found that AK was in the top 10 diagnoses in white patients but not for black patients. They postulated that photoprotective factors in darkly pigmented skin such as larger and more numerous melanosomes that contain more melanin and are more dispersed throughout the epidermis result in a lower incidence of skin cancers in the skin of color (SOC) population.

RELATED ARTICLE: Common Dermatologic Disorders in Skin of Color: A Comparative Practice Survey

However, a recent skin cancer awareness study in Cutis reported that even though SOC populations have lower incidences of skin cancer such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma, they exhibit higher death rates. Furthermore, black individuals are more likely to present with advanced-stage melanoma and acral lentiginous melanomas compared to white individuals. Kailas et al stated, “Overall, SOC patients have the poorest skin cancer prognosis, and the data suggest that the reason for this paradox is delayed diagnosis.” They evaluated several knowledge-based interventions for increasing skin cancer awareness, knowledge, and protective behaviors in SOC populations, including the use of visuals such as photographs to allow SOC patients to visualize different skin tones, educational interventions in another language, and pamphlets.

RELATED ARTICLE: Assessing the Effectiveness of Knowledge-Based Interventions in Increasing Skin Cancer Awareness, Knowledge, and Protective Behaviors in Skin of Color Populations

Dermatologists should be aware that education of SOC patients is important to eradicate the common misconception that these patients do not have to worry about AKs and other skin cancers. Remind these patients that they need to protect their skin from the sun, just as patients with fair skin do. Further research in the dermatology community should focus on educational interventions that will help increase knowledge regarding skin cancer in SOC populations.

Expert Commentary

Although more common in patients with lighter skin, actinic keratosis and skin cancer can be seen in patients of all skin types. Many patients are unaware of this risk and do not use sunscreen and other sun-protective measures. We, as a specialty, have to educate our patients and the public of the risk for actinic keratosis and skin cancer in all skin types.

—Gary Goldenberg, MD (New York, New York)

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