Skin cancer fact sheet

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States it occurs when there are mutations in the DNA of the skin cells. This form of cancer begins in your skin's top layer, the epidermis. This is a thin layer that provides a protective cover of skin cells continually shed by your body. The epidermis contains three main types of cells: squamous, basal, and melanocytes.

There are three major types of skin cancer. The two most common are squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. The third is melanoma; while it is less common, it is the most dangerous kind.

Squamous cell carcinoma – causes, signs, and symptoms

Squamous cells lie just below the outer surface and function as the skin’s inner lining. Most often, squamous cell carcinoma occurs on areas of your body exposed to the sun, such as your face, ears and hands. People with darker skin are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma on areas that aren’t often exposed to sun as often, such as the legs and feet. Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface.

Basal cell carcinoma – causes, signs, and symptoms

Basal cells produce new skin cells and live beneath the squamous cells. Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs in areas of your body exposed to the sun, such as your neck or face. It may appear as a pearly or waxy bump or a flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion.

Melanoma – causes, signs, and symptoms

Melanoma begins in skin cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that make melanin, which give skin its color. Melanin also protects the deeper layers of the skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. When exposed to the sun, the melanocytes produce more melanin, causing the skin to tan, but too much exposure to any type of UV light (including tanning beds) may cause the melanocytes to grow abnormally and become cancerous.

In men, melanoma most often shows up on the upper body, between the shoulders and hips and on the head and neck, whereas on a women, it’s more likely to develop on her lower legs. People with darker skin have a higher concentration of melanin, a skin pigment that acts a bit like sunscreen, but this does not make them any less susceptible to the sun’s radiation. Melanoma often appears under their fingernails or toenails, on the palms of their hands, and on the soles of their feet.

While your chances of getting melanoma increase as you get older, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults (ages 25 to 29). It is a serious and sometimes life-threatening cancer. If it is not caught early, it can grow deeper within the skin and metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body, making it difficult to treat.

While skin cancer doesn't discriminate, there are certain factors that can increase your risk:

  • Light-colored skin, hair, and eyes
  • People with moles or abnormal moles
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • History of sunburns
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Personal history of skin cancer
  • Weakened immune system
  • Sunny or high-altitude climates
  • Exposure to certain substances such as arsenic

You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting or avoiding exposure to UV radiation, wearing sunscreen year-round, wearing protective clothing, avoiding tanning beds, and being aware of sun-sensitizing medications.

Check your skin for suspicious changes and make an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist if you notice anything out of the ordinary. Not all skin changes are caused by skin cancer, but if it is cancer, early detection offers a better chance at successfully treating the disease.

Sun-safety myths

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, five or more sunburns over the course of a lifetime double your risk of melanoma. Here are a few dispelled myths about the sun so you can continue to enjoy the great outdoor safely.

Myth: I wear SPF 50 or higher; I have nothing to worry about.

Truth: The increase in protection offered by higher SPFs is minimal. The difference in protection between an SPF 15 and an SPF 50 is only a 5% increase. Look for “broad spectrum” or “multi-spectrum” on the label. This indicates what the sunscreen guards against.

Myth: I don't need sunscreen in the morning.

Truth: In the United States, UVB rays hit between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. April to October. But wait! UVA rays are present anytime it's light outside – that includes early morning, late afternoon, during the winter and on cloudy days. Wear sunscreen if you are going to be outside for more than 10 minutes. Better yet, make putting on sunscreen a part of your morning routine and you'll always be protected.

Myth: Water-resistant means waterproof.

Truth: There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. Some may be water-resistant, but that just means, while it won't completely wear off if you go in the pool, it will begin to lose its effect. It's important to remember to reapply after swimming, sweating, or towel-drying.

Sunburn relief... in your kitchen?

We’ve all done it: you’re at a picnic or the beach and forget to reapply your sunscreen. The UVB rays (responsible for sunburns) have done a number on your skin and now you’re in pain – to the kitchen! Try these natural remedies to help simmer down your sizzling skin.


Cut a raw potato in slices and rub a piece on your most painful spots. The starchy compound will help alleviate the sting.

Fat-free milk

Apply cool, not cold, milk to your skin using a clean cloth or gauze every 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat every two to four hours. The milk creates a protein film on your skin to ease your discomfort.


Mash up a few and slather on your sunburn; rinse off after a few minutes. The tannin content helps reduce the sting.


Suffering from a full-body burn? Grind up a cup of the cereal in your food processor, add it to cool bathwater and settle in for a soak.

Last reviewed: 
April 2018

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