Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Skin cancer risk factors

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

Reducing factors under your control may help lower your risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. Regular skin examinations may help spot a developing skin cancer early, when it is most treatable.

Learn more about skin cancer prevention.
cancer risks

Skin cancer risk factors

GENERAL

Age: Skin cancer risks increase as you age, which is likely due to accumulated exposure to UV radiation. But skin cancers may also be found in younger individuals who spend a lot of time in the sun. Frequent sunburns, especially when they occurred during childhood, increases the risk of developing melanoma. 

Immune suppression: Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as viruses, diseases or immune suppression therapy associated with organ transplantation, may increase skin cancer risks.

Gender: Men are approximately two times more likely to develop basal cell carcinomas and three times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinomas than women.

BODY

Skin tone: Caucasians have a greater risk of developing skin cancer than non-whites. The risk is also higher in individuals with blond or red hair, blue or green eyes, or skin that burns or freckles easily.

Moles: Most moles are harmless and may never develop into cancer, but having a large number of moles may increase the risk for developing melanoma. The presence of dysplastic nevi (moles that may resemble melanoma) may also increase risk, by 10 percent. Although most dysplastic nevi will not develop into melanomas, a small percentage may, and individuals with these types of moles should see a dermatologist regularly for thorough skin exams.

GENETICS

Family and/or personal history: Individuals with one or more parents or siblings with skin cancer may be at increased risk. Individuals who have previously been diagnosed with skin cancer are also at increased risk for developing the disease again.

Inherited conditions: Conditions such as xeroderma pigmentosum, 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.

LIFESTYLE

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.

UV exposure: People who work outdoors during the day or who choose to spend much of their leisure time outdoors and are exposed to UV light are at an increased risk. People who choose to use tanning beds increase their risk of skin cancer.

OTHER CONDITIONS

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 20 years old.

Viruses: Certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV) infections, particularly those that affect the anal or genital area, may increase the risk of skin cancer. Individuals have a higher risk of Kaposi sarcoma if they were infected with what’s known as the eighth human herpesvirus, also called Kaposi sarcoma associated herpesvirus. According to the American Cancer Society, some patients with Kaposi sarcoma have a weakened immune system because of their HIV infection.

PREVIOUS TREATMENT

Radiation exposure: Treatment with radiation may increase the risk for developing skin cancers in the exposed area.

Psoriasis treatment: Individuals who have been treated for psoriasis with a combination of psoralen, a natural remedy, and ultraviolet light treatment may have an increased risk for developing squamous cell carcinoma and 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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