Skin Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Skin cancer is the most common cancer¹ in the United States. It’s so common that one in five Americans will have developed skin cancer by the time they reach the age of 70. Fortunately, there are measures that you can take to prevent skin cancer. And if you do happen to get it, it’s usually entirely treatable if it’s caught early. Read on to find the answers to your skin cancer FAQs.

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We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Skin cancer, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is skin cancer?

The skin is made up of different types of cells. Abnormal or unregulated growth can occur in any of these cells, causing cancer.

Usually, the type of skin cancer is named after the cells where cancer originates. An example of this is melanoma, which is named after melanocytes—the cells that produce pigment in the skin.

Are there different types of skin cancer?

Skin cancer can be broadly divided into melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Non-melanoma skin cancers are far more common than melanoma skin cancers. When people talk about “skin cancer,” they are usually talking about non-melanoma skin cancers.

Non-melanoma skin cancers can be further divided into basal cell carcinoma (cancer of the basal cells of the skin) and squamous cell carcinoma (cancer of the squamous cells of the skin). Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer in the U.S., followed by squamous cell carcinoma.

Melanomas are usually caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Having five or more episodes of sunburn doubles your risk² of developing a melanoma.

Melanomas are more invasive and aggressive than non-melanoma skin cancers, but catching them early decreases the chance of them spreading. If you catch and remove a melanoma early (before it has spread to the lymph nodes), your five-year survival rate is 99%.

What causes skin cancer?

90% of skin cancer is caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Although melanomas are usually associated with sun damage, they aren’t always; so don’t presume that an abnormal mole isn’t a melanoma just because it isn’t in a sun-exposed area. Learn more about the risk factors for skin cancer.

Does tanning cause skin cancer?

According to the FDA³, there is “no such thing as a safe tan.” Tanning greatly increases your risk of developing skin cancer. Tanning also increases the chances of you getting sunburnt, which is a significant risk factor for developing skin cancer.

Although your body does produce melanin when you tan, this only provides protection equivalent to a sun protection factor (SPF) of two to four. An SPF that low does not protect against developing skin cancer.

Do tanning beds cause skin cancer?

Yes. Indoor tanning devices can emit UV radiation ten to 15 times higher than the sun when it’s at peak intensity. Their use is so strongly linked to skin cancer that the International Agency for Research on Cancer⁴ has classified UV indoor tanning devices as a Group One carcinogen. Group One cancer-causing agents have a strong causative link to cancer and include substances such as cigarettes and plutonium.

Any history of tanning indoors increases your risk of developing basal cell carcinoma⁵ before the age of 40 by 69%. One study⁶ found that there is a dose-response relationship between tanning bed use and skin cancer development, meaning that the more you use indoor tanning devices, the higher your chances of developing skin cancer.

Does sunscreen cause skin cancer?

No. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association⁷, there is no evidence that sunscreen is harmful or toxic. In the U.S., sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter medications by the FDA.

What are the risk factors for developing skin cancer?

There are some risk factors that may increase your likelihood of developing skin cancer. If you have these risk factors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get skin cancer, but it does mean that you need to make extra sure that you get regular skin checks.

Risks for developing skin cancer:

  • Having a family history of skin cancer

  • Having had radiation therapy for other cancers

  • Taking immunosuppressant medication

  • Having a history of many episodes of sunburn

  • Having very fair skin

  • Having multiple large moles

  • Having a weak immune system (for example if you have HIV)

  • Spending large amounts of time outdoors

Signs and symptoms

What do skin cancer spots look like?

There are some red flags that should make you concerned that a skin lesion may be cancerous. These are things you should look out for:

  • Sores that don’t heal

  • Skin lesions that are itchy and that don’t seem to get better

  • Skin lesions that bleed easily

  • Skin lesions that are irregular or mixed colors, often reds, blues, whites, and blacks

  • Skin lesions that have irregular margins or that are asymmetrical

  • Moles or skin lesions that are changing in color, shape, or size

  • Warty-looking lesions with blood vessels visible on their surfaces

These are some of the signs that a skin lesion may be malignant. If any of them sound familiar, it’s best to get the lesion checked out by your general practitioner or dermatologist.

Are skin tags a symptom of skin cancer?

No, skin tags are not a sign of skin cancer. Skin tags are benign lesions that usually occur in places where skin rubs together, e.g., under your arms.

What is the difference between a skin cancer spot, a mole, and an age spot?

It may not always be easy to tell the difference between a skin cancer spot, a mole, and an age spot just by appearance.

A skin cancer spot is made up of atypical cells that have cancerous changes. Skin cancer spots have the potential to spread to other organs.

A mole is usually a harmless cluster of pigmented cells. Although moles are not malignant, they can develop cancerous changes, so any mole that changes needs to be checked out. 

An age spot is a flat, oval-shaped area of pigmented skin. Age spots occur in areas of the body that are exposed to the sun. They usually occur in people over the age of 50 but can occur in younger people if they have spent a lot of time in the sun.

Age spots are not malignant and usually don’t need treatment, but they are a sign of sun damage to the skin and act as a warning for you to keep an eye out for skin cancers.

Why is skin cancer more common in some areas?

Sun exposure leads to skin cancer, so it comes as no surprise that skin cancer commonly occurs in sun-exposed areas (think: lips, nose, ears, arms, and chest).

Can Black people get skin cancer?

Yes, Black people can get skin cancer, but it’s less common than in fair-skinned people.

Black people have more melanin in their skins (melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color), which does offer some extra protection from sun damage. Black people are still at risk from skin cancers not caused by sun damage and in areas that are exposed to the sun a lot.

Can skin cancer spread?

Yes, all types of skin cancer can spread to other parts of the body.

Basal cell carcinoma is the least likely skin cancer to spread to other organs. Usually, it will spread locally into nerves and other surrounding tissue before spreading to other organs. If you catch a basal cell carcinoma early, it can be completely removed.

Squamous cell carcinoma is more likely than basal cell carcinoma to spread to lymph nodes and other organs, but it’s still one of the least likely cancers to spread to other organs. It’s usually slow-growing and takes a long time to spread.

Melanoma is the most likely skin cancer to spread to lymph nodes and other organs, including the brain, lungs, and liver. Melanomas can be aggressive, which is why it’s important that you get any suspicious skin lesions checked out as soon as possible.

Can skin cancer be treated?

Yes. If you catch skin cancers early, they can be fully treated. The take-home message here is to get your skin checked out early and regularly.

Learn more about skin cancer treatment, including side effects and downtime, here.

Have you considered clinical trials for Skin cancer?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Skin cancer, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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