What is Skin Cancer

Anatomical illustration of the layers of skin
Your skin is your body’s largest organ and it serves several important functions. Your skin protects your body from heat, injury and infection; stores necessary water and fat; helps maintain body temperature; and makes vitamin D, an essential nutrient.

Like all cancers, skin cancer begins in the body’s cells. The normal process of tissue growth and repair is usually controlled and orderly. Old cells die off and new cells are created to take their place. However, when cells become damaged and mutations change normal cell function, the cells can grow abnormally and uncontrolled, becoming cancerous.

The skin is comprised of three main layers. The epidermis is the outer surface of the skin and contains several major cell types — squamous cells which are also known as keratinocytes, pigment cells also known as melanocytes, Merkel cells and leukocytes.

  • The dermis lies underneath the epidermis and contains blood vessels, lymph vessels, nerves, hair follicles, and sweat and oil glands.
  • The subcutis, or hypodermis layer, is the deepest skin layer, and helps to protect your body and keep it warm. This layer contains fat cells, collagen, blood vessels and nerves.

Types of skin cancer

The most common types of skin cancer include these three:

  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer. They grow slowly and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Basal cell carcinomas are typically slowly enlarging, pink, pearly bumps that bleed easily, but they may also present as slow growing painless ulcers.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer that also begins in keratinocytes, squamous cells are the most abundant cells of the skin. Squamous cell cancer is the second most common type of skin cancer and some squamous cell carcinomas can spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
  • Melanoma is a skin cancer type that begins in the pigment cells, called melanocytes. Melanocytes are scattered among the basal cells and make melanin, the pigment that colors your skin. Melanoma is considered a more serious skin cancer type because it is more likely to spread than the much more common basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas. Learn more about this cancer type in our dedicated section on Melanoma

For less common skin cancer types, it’s especially important to seek diagnosis and treatment from experienced cancer specialists. Some of these rare skin cancers include:

  • Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare, aggressive cancer that begins in the Merkel cells that are found among the basal cells in the deepest part of the epidermis layer. Merkel cells are neuroendocrine cells and play a role in the sensation of touch. These cancers tend to grow quickly and metastasize (spread), first to nearby lymph nodes and then to distant sites such as the lungs, brain, bones, and other organs.
  • Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma is cancer that affects a type of white blood cell called T cells, which help fight infection and other diseases. Because the skin is the body’s first line of defense against disease, most of our T cells are found in the skin. Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma often appears as a rash on the skin and may be mistaken for eczema or psoriasis.
  • Sebaceous carcinoma is a cancer that begins in an oil gland of the skin, most commonly on the eyelid.
  • Atypical fibroxanthoma is a cancer type that typically develops on the sun-exposed head and neck areas of older adults.
  • Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP) is a slow-growing cancer of the skin that appears as a growing scar-like area.
  • Microcystic adnexal carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the sweat gland ducts, often on the face or other parts of the head or neck region.

Learn More About Skin Cancer

Learn more ways to prevent skin cancer and know the warning signs of a changing mole or spot on your body.

Skin cancer info sheet Skin cancer info sheet — for teens