Skin Cancer: Types and Prevention
Learn about the types of skin cancer and how to protect your skin from the sun.

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Protecting your skin from dangerous solar radiation should be a concern throughout the year.

Slathering on the sunscreen and taking other sun-protection precautions are increasingly important. The incidence of skin cancer in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. More than 2 million new non-melanoma skin cancer cases and 68,000 melanoma skin cancer cases will be diagnosed this year, according to American Cancer Society. Of the three main forms of skin cancer that include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, melanoma is the most deadly and accounts for about 79 percent of all skin-cancer deaths. When detected and treated at an early stage, all forms of skin cancer are highly curable.

Avoiding excessive exposure to UV light is probably the single most important way to lower your skin cancer risk. When UV radiation strikes the skin, direct tissue and cellular damage occurs at the DNA level. UV radiation also weakens the immune system.

While anyone is susceptible to skin cancer, there are several common risk factors that can make you more vulnerable. These include:

  • A history of repeated, blistering sunburns during childhood and adolescence
  • Freckles, which suggest a higher-than-average sensitivity to UV light
  • Fair to light skin color
  • Numerous or unusually shaped moles
  • A personal or family history of skin cancer
  • A job or hobby that keeps you outdoors most of the time
  • Chronic skin inflammation or sores
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy
  • Thick scaly patches of skin called actinic keratosis

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends everyone use a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily with an SPF of at least 30. Liberally apply the sunscreen to all exposed skin at least 20 minutes before going outside. Reapply the sunscreen every 2 hours during midday and after swimming or sweating.

In addition to conscientious use of sunscreens, other ways to protect your skin include:

  • Avoiding sunlight between 10 am and 4 pm
  • Wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts with a tight weave
  • Wearing wrap-around sunglasses with complete UV absorption
  • Avoiding tanning booths
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat outdoors
  • Promptly reporting suspicious skin changes to your doctor; such changes include spots that grow, bleed, or crust over

The AAD recommends checking your skin regularly for signs of skin cancer. See your doctor if you notice anything suspicious.

  • Basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, may be translucent and grow gradually, or it can look like a sore that won't heal, according to the AAD. These lesions can be removed by freezing or surgery.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma appears as a crusty, scaly patch with a hard surface. It, too, can be removed by freezing or surgery, but further treatment may be needed if the cancer has spread.
  • Melanoma represents 4 percent of all skin cancers. It often resembles a pigmented mole that may be asymmetrical or have an uneven border. Its color and size may change over time. The tumor and surrounding tissue must be surgically excised. Melanoma patients also may require radiation, chemotherapy, or other aggressive treatments.
By Melissa Chen, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 10/06/1999
Updated on 07/05/2011
  • American Cancer Society. Skin cancer facts.
  • American Academy of Dermatology. Be sun smart.
  • American Academy of Dermatology. How to examine your skin.
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