UF dermatologist addresses skin care

Dr. George Cohen says African Americans should wear sunscreen, too

Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 5:57 p.m.

It was 1965, just a year after the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation, and Dr. George Cohen was an adolescent learning about sunscreen for the first time — when, at the beach, a white girl asked him to rub some on her back.

"I didn't know what sunscreen was, and I'd never touched a white girl," Cohen told an audience recently at the University of Florida Springhill Health Center's dermatology department.

What Cohen, a dermatologist at the clinic, also didn't know back then is that he should be wearing sunscreen, too.

A common misconception that still persists is that African-Americans, because of their darker skin pigmentation, don't need to wear sunscreen and are immune to skin cancer.

Cohen's talk was dedicated to skin issues in African-Americans, which have been overlooked, Cohen said.

"Many dermatologists in America did not receive formal training" in treating typical skin conditions in African-Americans, said Cohen, adding their textbooks don't have a lot of pictures of the conditions.

There's also been a dearth of research on these conditions, Cohen added.

He said that melanoma, for example, can appear on the hands and feet — Reggae legend Bob Marley in fact died of a melanoma that started on his foot but was caught too late to be successfully treated.

Black people need to check for irregular or changed moles just like whites, Cohen said.

Dr. Michael Wangia, originally from Kenya and a dermatology resident at the Springhill clinic who was at the talk, said that doctors also need to familiarize themselves with conditions typical in African-Americans — and how to treat them.

Wangia underlinined that treatments sometimes are different. Removing benign lesions with liquid nitrogen may cause white spots in African-Americans, for example.

Cohen said that doctors' familiarity with treating people of darker skin pigmentations will serve them well, since by 2050, the majority of the country is predicted to be non-white. A lot of medical schools are incorporating these needs into their curriculum, he added.

Kristine Crane is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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