Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the US each year than all other cancers combined. So, what is the number one risk factor for skin cancer, and how can you avoid it?

Skin cancer risk factors can be categorized into two main camps: environmental and genetic. Fortunately, you can minimize environmental risk factors and decrease your odds of developing skin cancer by adjusting your lifestyle and habits.

Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is broken into two major types: melanoma and nonmelanoma. Melanoma only accounts for about 1 percent of skin cancers, but it's also the most deadly. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one person dies from melanoma every hour. However, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent if it's detected and treated early (before it spreads to the lymph nodes).

Nonmelanoma skin cancers, including basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, are more common. They often develop on the parts of your skin that get a lot of sun exposure, like the face, chest, and back of the hands. Both are highly treatable with early detection and proper treatment.

Environmental Risk Factors

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Sun Exposure

So, what is the number one risk factor for skin cancer? If you guessed sun exposure, you would be right. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 90 percent of skin cancers come from unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. And the sun doesn't discriminate. Sun exposure is cumulative over your lifetime, so both sitting in traffic on a sunny day and enjoying a day at the beach contribute to your risk.


The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that one blistering sunburn or five non-blistering sunburns in adolescence can double your lifetime risk of developing melanoma.

Indoor Tanning

Tanning beds can deliver 10 to 15 times more UV radiation than the sun at its peak intensity, and using a tanning bed before age 35 increases your risk of melanoma by 75 percent. So, skip the tanning bed and opt for a bronzer or self-tanner if you're chasing that summer glow.

Ulcers and Scars

Skin cancer risk can increase with ulcers and certain scars, such as thermal burn injury scars.

Medical Conditions and Treatments

Medical conditions that suppress the immune system can increase your skin cancer risk. Radiation therapy and immunosuppressive medications, such as those used with organ transplant patients or people with Parkinson's disease, can also raise your risk.

Genetic Risk Factors

Fair Skin

Skin cancer is more common in people with fair skin. However, anyone—regardless of skin color—can develop skin cancer anywhere on the body. Read that again. There's a common misconception that people with darker skin tones are immune to skin cancer, but this is untrue. While people of color have a lower risk of skin cancer than people with lighter skin tones, they're more likely to receive a diagnosis at a later stage with lower survival rates.

Hair and Eye Color

People with red hair and light eyes have an increased likelihood of developing skin cancer. Redheads have a form of melanin (the pigment that gives hair and skin its color) called pheomelanin, which isn't as effective at guarding against UV rays.


Although women are diagnosed with skin cancer at higher rates worldwide, men of all ages are more likely to die from melanoma. This discrepancy may be due to increased outdoor exposure, lower use of broad-spectrum sunscreen, or fewer Dermatologist visits for full-body skin cancer screenings.


Having many regular moles—more than 50—or having more than four atypical moles increases your skin cancer risk. Atypical moles appear abnormal to the human eye and have two or more colors, irregular borders, or are larger than a pencil eraser.

Family History and Genetic Syndromes

Having a family history of skin cancer or rare genetic syndrome, such as basal cell nevus syndrome or xeroderma pigmentosum, is linked to increased skin cancer risk. Doctors often identify these conditions at birth or young adulthood, enabling early intervention.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer

You can't control all of your risk factors for skin cancer, but you can take preventive measures to minimize some—including the number one risk factor: UV light.

Wear Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen

Protect your skin daily by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Reapply at least every two hours or more if swimming or sweating. Combine this sun-safety practice with other measures, such as wearing sun-protective clothing and seeking shade during peak sunlight hours.

It's easier to wear sunscreen every day if you find a formula that suits your skin type and concerns. For your face, try something like EltaMD UV AOX Elements Broad-Spectrum SPF 50 as the last step in your morning skin care routine. Noncomedogenic, water-resistant, and fragrance-free, this tinted formula is packed with antioxidants and hydrators to protect your skin from free radical damage and keep it smooth and radiant.

For full-body coverage, try EltaMD UV AOX Mist Broad-Spectrum SPF 40. This 100 percent mineral sunscreen spray boasts white-to-clear technology and 360-degree sprayability to cover hard-to-reach areas—even upside down.

Schedule Annual Skin Exams

The best way to protect yourself from genetic risk factors is to schedule annual full-body skin exams with a board-certified Derm. They can identify suspicious lesions early, supporting timely diagnosis and treatment.

Taking Control of Your Skin Health

Some skin cancer risk factors are unavoidable. Thankfully, you can minimize your chances by protecting your skin from sun damage, educating yourself about your family's skin history, and scheduling a skin exam with your Derm to catch any signs early. Do your skin a favor and take control of your risk factors to support a lifetime of healthy skin.


  • Jessica DiJulio, MA, MMS, PA-C

    Jessica DiJulio is a board-certified physician assistant. She graduated from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University as a member of its inaugural class. She enjoys all aspects of dermatology including working with inflammatory skin conditions like atopic dermatitis in children, adults and using her master's degree in English to contribute as a freelance medical writer.

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