Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with an incidence higher than all other cancers combined. And unfortunately, there are many skin cancer risk factors. The good news is that most people diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma—the three most common forms of skin cancer—have favorable outcomes after treatment. But for cases that are detected late or are more biologically aggressive, dangerous skin growth can result in disfigurement, metastasis, and death. Considering two people die of skin cancer each hour in the United States, increasing awareness is absolutely crucial.

There are many factors that determine your likelihood of getting skin cancer, each of which falls into one of two general categories: genetic (traits inherited when you were born) and environmental (the more controllable risk factors for skin cancer). Though you can't eliminate the dangers completely, understanding what makes you susceptible to skin cancer is key to taking the right preventative measures.

Genetic Risk Factors

Skin Type

Anyone, regardless of skin color, can develop skin cancer. There is a common misconception that those with darker skin are somehow immune to this condition, but this is not the case. It is true, though, that lighter skin—which sunburns easily, and freckles but never tans—is much more susceptible to damage from ultraviolet (UV) light. Still, those who tan easily can also be affected and should take precautions.

Hair and Eye Color

Notably, those with red hair and light skin have an increased likelihood of developing skin cancer. In fact, such people are 1.5 times more likely than average to have basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. They are also 12 times more likely to get squamous cell carcinoma and 10 to 100 times more likely to get melanoma.

Redheads have a form of melanin (the skin pigment that protects against UV light) called pheomelanin, which is not as effective at guarding against the sun's harmful rays. This issue has been linked to mutations of the MC1R gene. Similar risks exist for those with light eyes.

Sex

Although women get skin cancer at high rates both in the United States and worldwide, men are actually more likely to get it throughout their lives. The death rates associated with melanoma are also higher in males, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. This discrepancy may be the product of more outdoor exposure, lower use of sun protection, or a lower likelihood of receiving full-body skin cancer screenings.

Number of Moles

Two additional predisposing genetic factors are having either a lot of regular moles—more than 50—or having any number of atypical moles. Atypical moles appear abnormal to the human eye or under the microscope but are not cancerous. They can be diagnosed via biopsy or exam by a board-certified Dermatologist. Though they are benign, those with 10 or more atypical lesions have an increased likelihood of developing melanoma—specifically, 12 times the average risk.

Personal or Family History

Having a first-degree relative (i.e., mother, father, brother, or sister) with melanoma can increase your chances of getting the same disease. It also holds true that having a personal history of skin cancer puts you at a higher risk of developing more.

Genetic Syndromes and Other Medical Conditions

There are rare genetic syndromes, such as basal cell nevus syndrome or xeroderma pigmentosum, that are linked to skin cancer. Doctors usually identify these conditions at birth or young adulthood, enabling early intervention. Other medical conditions and treatments, such as organ transplantation, also increase the risk of skin cancer. This is due to the immunosuppressive medications given in these instances.

Environmental Risk Factors

UV Light Exposure

UV light is perhaps the most well-established skin carcinogen. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 90 percent of skin cancers come from unprotected exposure to UV light. This means both the rays that come in contact with the skin on a daily basis and those that come from short but intense periods of exposure, such as beach vacations. One blistering sunburn or five non-blistering sunburns in adolescence can double one's lifetime risk of developing melanoma. Without adequate sun protection measures, everyday exposure accumulates over the years and poses a risk, as well. Those with outdoor professions or athletic enthusiasts (e.g., long-distance runners and golfers) should take extreme precautions.

Indoor Tanning

Ready for this one? Indoor tanning devices can emit 10 to 15 times the amount of radiation that the sun does at peak intensity. Certainly, using a tanning booth in adolescence not only increases the risk for skin cancer but also raises the probability that this occurs at a young age. Additionally, do not believe the hype promoted by many outlets claiming that using such machines can give a beneficial vitamin D boost. Stick with supplements and a healthy diet to get the vitamins you need safely.

Radiation and Scars

Exposure to other forms of radiation, such as what one may encounter with cancer treatment and thermal burn injuries, can be a precursor to skin cancer. Long-lasting scars are also especially susceptible. For those with darker complexions, the latter two injuries pose the most significant risk of developing into squamous cell carcinoma.

Take Control of Your Risk

You may or may not have some of the skin cancer risk factors listed here, but in either case, prevention is key. Make sure to use a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen, 365 days a year—rain or shine. Couple that with regular trips to a board-certified Dermatologist, and you'll be making strides to support optimal skin health.

Author

  • Dr. Mona Gohara is a Connecticut-based Dermatologist and associate professor of Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. She has a particular interest in skin cancer prevention and treatment for skin of color. Dr. Gohara spends a lot of time outdoors with her husband, son, and two dogs, Coco and Cleo. They all wear sunscreen.