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Skin cancer risk factors

Certain factors may increase your skin cancer risks. By reducing those factors under your control, you may be able to decrease your risk of developing melanoma. For those that can’t be controlled, regular skin examination can increase the chance of catching a developing skin cancer early, when it is most curable.

The primary risk factor for skin cancer, including melanoma and non-melanoma cancers, is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight and tanning beds. The risk of developing skin cancers increases with greater exposure to these sources of UV radiation. People who live in areas with year-round bright sunlight, or those who spend a lot of time outdoors without protective clothing or sunscreen, are at greater risk. Early exposure, particularly frequent sunburns as a child, can also increase your skin cancer risks.

Skin cancer prevention

Decreasing your exposure to UV light by avoiding direct sunlight and tanning beds is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. When you do go out in the sun, wear protective clothing, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen.

Regular, thorough skin examinations are also important, especially if you have a large number of moles or other risk factors. While this will not prevent skin cancer from developing, it may help to catch it early, when it can be treated more easily. Tell your doctor if you see any new, unusual or changing moles or growths on your skin.

cancer risks

Skin cancer risk factors


  • Older age: Skin cancer risks increase as you age, which is likely due to accumulated exposure to UV radiation. However, skin cancers are increasingly being found in younger individuals, possibly because they are spending more time in the sun.
  • Weakened immune system: Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as immune suppression therapy associated with organ transplantation, may increase your skin cancer risks.
  • Male gender: Men are approximately two times more likely to develop basal cell carcinomas and three times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinomas compared with women, and this may also be related to increased exposure to the sun.


  • Fair skin: Caucasians have an increased risk of developing skin cancer than non-whites. The risk is also higher in individuals with blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes, or skin that burns or freckles easily.
  • Moles or dysplastic nevi: Most moles are harmless and will never develop into cancer, but having a large number of moles may increase the risk for developing melanoma. In addition, the presence of dysplastic nevi (moles that look a little like moles and a little like melanoma) can increase lifetime risk by 10 percent. Although most dysplastic nevi will not develop into melanomas, a small percentage can, and individuals with these types of moles should see a dermatologist regularly for a thorough skin exam.
  • Severe or long-term skin inflammation: Skin that has been damaged by a severe burn, underlying severe bone infection or severe inflammatory skin disease may be more likely to develop a skin cancer, although this risk is thought to be small.


  • Family or personal history: Individuals with one or more first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with skin cancer are at increased risk. In addition, individuals who have previously been diagnosed with skin cancer are at increased risk for developing the disease again.
  • Inherited conditions: Conditions such as Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP), an inherited disease that affects the skin’s ability to repair UV damage, are at increased risk for developing skin cancers, and may develop them at an earlier age.


  • Smoking: Smokers are more likely to develop squamous cell skin cancers, particularly on the lips.
  • Chemical exposure: Certain chemicals, including arsenic, industrial tar, coal, paraffin and certain types of oil may increase the risk for certain types of non-melanoma skin cancers.


  • Basal cell nevus syndrome: Individuals with this condition, also known as Gorlin Syndrome, often develop many basal cell carcinomas over their lifetimes, and these may start before they are even 20 years old.
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection: Infection with certain types of HPV, particularly those that affect the anal or genital area, may increase your skin cancer risks.


  • Radiation exposure: Treatment with radiation can increase the risk for developing skin cancers in the exposed area.
  • Psoriasis treatment: A treatment for psoriasis, psoralen and ultraviolet light treatment (PUVA) can increase the risk for developing squamous cell carcinoma, and potentially other forms of skin cancer.

Understanding risk factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer. Not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss it with your doctor.

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