What causes skin cancer?

Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, which usually develops on the most sun-exposed areas of the body — face, neck and arms. Fair-skinned people develop skin cancer more often than dark-skinned people, but anyone can get skin cancer.

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Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Sunlight (ultraviolet radiation or UV) exposure
    • Tanning
    • Severe, blistering sunburns
    • Personal history of a previous skin cancer.
  • Family or personal risk factors
    • Family history of skin cancer
    • Fair complexion (including blonde or red hair, blue eyes, skin that freckles or burns easily)
    • Gorlin's Syndrome — also called basal cell nevus syndrome — a genetic condition that causes unusual facial features and disorders of the skin, bones, nervous system, eyes, and endocrine glands. This may cause many basal cell carcinomas early in life.
    • Xeroderma pigmentosum —A rare, inherited condition where the skin has an extreme reaction to sunlight and cannot heal well.
  • Weaker immune system:
    • Diseases that weaken the immune system such lymphoma, leukemia or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
    • Receiving an organ transplant
  • Chemical exposure
    • Exposure to chemicals like arsenic, coal or industrial tar
    • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV).  Some HPV types infect the skin and increase risk for skin cancer.
  • Old scars, burns, ulcers or inflamed skin areas
  • Precancerous lesions, actinic keratosis (AKs) on the skin. These scaly bumps or rough flat skin areas are usually found on sun-exposed areas, such as the face, neck, chest, and back of hands.
  • Prior radiation therapy

Skin cancer from tanning beds

Artificial sources of UV radiation, such as tanning beds and sunlamps, can be more dangerous than sunlight because their UV radiation is often stronger. People who use tanning beds have a higher risk of getting skin cancer and they tend to get skin cancer earlier in life. The World Health Organization declared these tanning devices to be a group 1 carcinogen, because of their clearly understood ability to cause cancer. Tanning devices are in the same group 1 carcinogen category as tobacco, asbestos and uranium.