When you’re told you have skin cancer, it’s natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. The main risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to sunlight (UV radiation), but there are also other risk factors. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease. People with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer, and some risk factors vary for different types of skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Risks
Studies have shown that the following are risk factors for the three most common types of skin cancer:
- Sunlight. Sunlight is a source of UV radiation. It’s the most important risk factor for any type of skin cancer. The sun’s rays cause skin damage that can lead to cancer.
- Severe, blistering sunburns. People who have had at least one severe, blistering sunburn are at an increased risk of skin cancer. Although people who burn easily are more likely to have had sunburns as a child, sunburns during adulthood also increase the risk of skin cancer.
- Lifetime sun exposure. The total amount of sun exposure over a lifetime is a risk factor for skin cancer.
- Tanning. Although a tan slightly lowers the risk of sunburn, even people who tan well without burning have a higher risk of skin cancer because of more lifetime sun exposure.
- Sunlamps and tanning booths. Artificial sources of UV radiation, such as sunlamps and tanning booths, can cause skin damage and skin cancer. Health care providers strongly encourage people, especially young people, to avoid using sunlamps and tanning booths. The risk of skin cancer is greatly increased by using sunlamps and tanning booths before age 30.
- Personal history. People who have had melanoma have an increased risk of developing other melanomas. Also, people who have had basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer have an increased risk of developing another type of skin cancer.
- Skin that burns easily. Having fair (pale) skin that burns easily in the sun, blue or gray eyes, red or blond hair or many freckles increases the risk of skin cancer.
Doctors encourage people to limit their exposure to sunlight. Sunlight can be reflected by sand, water, snow, ice and pavement. The sun’s rays can get through clouds, windshields, windows and light clothing. In the United States, skin cancer is more common where the sun is strong. The sun is stronger at higher elevations, such as in the mountains. Be aware, know your risk factors and see your care provider if you have any questions about skin cancer.