Skin cancer: Who gets and causes

Who gets skin cancer?

Anyone can get skin cancer. Even people who have skin of color get this cancer. Bob Marley, a musician from Jamaica, developed melanoma on his foot. Most people who get skin cancer, however, have lighter skin.

Sun and indoor tanning are the leading causes of skin cancer.

People who are more likely to get skin cancer:

  • Spend a lot of time in the sun.
  • Use tanning beds or sun lamps.
  • Live (or once lived) in an area that gets intense sunlight, such as Florida, the Caribbean, or northern Australia.

If this exposure was years ago, a person still has an increased risk. Even if the exposure did not last long, such as lying out for a few summers, there is a greater risk.

Risk factors for skin cancer

Scientists have found that the following increases a person’s risk for getting skin cancer.

Skin: A person’s skin type and the moles on one’s skin affect the person’s risk for getting skin cancer. The risk increases when the person has:
  • Fair skin, especially when the person also has blond or red hair and blue, green, or gray eyes.
  • Had bad sunburns, especially blistering sunburns.
  • Skin that burns or freckles rather than tans.
  • 50 or more moles.
  • Moles called “atypical nevi” or “dysplastic nevi.”
Family: When a close blood relative has (or had) skin cancer, a person’s risk of getting skin cancer rises. A close blood relative is a parent, brother, sister, or child.

Medical history: Having (or having had) any of the following puts a person at greater risk for getting skin cancer:

  • Previous skin cancer.
  • Actinic keratoses (AKs). Having AKs means the skin has lots of damage. This damage increases the risk of getting all types of skin cancer. Sometimes, an AK can progress to a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Organ transplant. The medicine that prevents the body from rejecting the organ also weakens the immune system. A weak immune system increases the risk of skin cancer.
  • Bad burn. Skin cancer can develop where the skin has been badly burned.
  • X-ray treatments. Receiving many x-ray treatments to treat a medical condition increases the risk. This takes many years to develop.
  • Disease that weakens the immune system. Lymphoma and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are a few diseases that weaken the immune system.
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum. People who inherit this rare disease get many skin cancers.
  • Gorlin’s syndrome (also called basal cell nevus syndrome). People who have this rare disease can get many basal cell carcinomas early in life. They also have a higher risk for getting melanoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Receiving an organ transplant greatly increases the risk of developing skin cancer. 

Exposure to chemicals: People exposed to any of the following have a much higher risk of skin cancer:
  • Arsenic (working with or swallowing).
  • Coal.
  • Industrial tar.

Tobacco: Smoking or chewing tobacco may increase the risk of getting squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, in the mouth or throat.

Learn more about skin cancer:

Types of skin cancer:

Related resources:

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