Skin cancer causes and risk factors

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 1, 2022.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Reducing controllable risk factors may help lower the risk for developing skin cancer, including melanoma. Regular skin examinations may help identify a developing skin cancer early, when more treatment options tend to be available.

What causes skin cancer?

Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light causes the majority of skin cancers. This includes light from the sun and tanning beds, with the risk growing with the amount of exposure. People who live in areas with bright, year-round sun, 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 children, also increases skin cancer and melanoma risks.

Common skin cancer risk factors

Common risk factors and possible causes of skin cancer other than the sun and UV rays

Age: Skin cancer risks increase as people 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.

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.

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.

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 20 years old.

Viruses: Certain types of human papillomavirus (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.

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.

Common questions about the causes of skin cancer

Can infrared light cause skin cancer?

While it’s well-known that exposure to UV light is the main risk factor for developing skin cancer, researchers are now investigating whether infrared light exposure may also increase risk. One study found that infrared light can damage the deeper layers of the skin, potentially increasing the risk of skin cancer.

Does sunscreen cause skin cancer?

No existing research studies have linked the use of sunscreen to an increased risk for developing cancer. However, some people are concerned about the chemical ingredients in sunscreens. Those who choose to avoid using sunscreen should take extra steps for skin protection, such as using sun-blocking clothing and hats, or by using sunblock such as zinc oxide.

Does sunburn cause skin cancer?

While a red and painful sunburn itself signals a temporary reaction to UV light overexposure, the damage sunburns cause to skin cells may be permanent, potentially increasing skin cancer risk.

Can skin picking cause cancer?

Frequent skin picking, also called dermatillomania, may damage the skin, but researchers have not found a link between this habit and the development of skin cancer. 

Next topic: What are the symptoms of skin cancer?

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Show references
  • Federation of American Societies for Experimental Microbiology (2020, Jan. 16). Individual and combined effects of the infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light components of solar radiation on damage biomarkers in human skin cells.