National Cancer Institute


Posted Date: Apr 27, 2014

Expert-reviewed information summary about factors that may influence the risk of developing skin cancer and about research aimed at the prevention of this disease.

Skin Cancer Prevention

What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

General Information About Skin Cancer

Key Points for this Section

  • Skin cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the skin.
  • There are several types of skin cancer.
  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.

Skin cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the skin.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. It protects against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. Skin also helps control body temperature and stores water, fat, and vitamin D. The skin has several layers, but the two main layers are the epi dermis (upper or outer layer) and the dermis (lower or inner layer).

The epidermis is made up of 3 kinds of cells:

  • Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells that make up most of the epidermis.
  • Basal cells are the round cells under the squamous cells.
  • Melanocytes are found throughout the lower part of the epidermis. They make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes make more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken.

The dermis contains blood and lymph vessels, hair follicles, and glands.

Anatomy of the skin with melanocytes; drawing shows normal skin anatomy, including the epidermis, dermis, hair follicles, sweat glands, hair shafts, veins, arteries, fatty tissue, nerves, lymph vessels, oil glands, and subcutaneous tissue. The pullout shows a close-up of the squamous cell and basal cell layers of the epidermis above the dermis with blood vessels. Melanin is shown in the cells. A melanocyte is shown in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.
Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Melanocytes are in the layer of basal cells at the deepest part of the epidermis.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about skin cancer:

  • Skin Cancer Screening
  • Skin Cancer Treatment
  • Melanoma Treatment

There are several types of skin cancer.

The most common types of skin cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, which forms in the squamous cells and basal cell carcinoma, which forms in the basal cells. Squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are also called nonmelanoma skin cancers. Melanoma, which forms in the melanocytes, is a less common type of skin cancer that grows and spreads quickly.

Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body, but it is most common in areas exposed to sunlight, such as the face, neck, hands, and arms.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer in the United States. The number of new cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer appears to be increasing every year. These nonmelanoma skin cancers can usually be cured.

The number of new cases of melanoma has been increasing for at least 30 years. Melanoma is more likely to spread to nearby tissues and other parts of the body and can be harder to cure. Finding and treating melanoma skin cancer early may help prevent death from melanoma.

Skin Cancer Prevention

Key Points for this Section

  • Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.
  • Being exposed to ultraviolet radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer.
  • It is not known if the following lower the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer:
    • Sunscreen use and avoiding sun exposure
    • Chemopreventive agents
  • It is not known if the following lower the risk of melanoma:
    • Sunscreen
    • Counseling and protecting the skin from the sun
  • Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.
  • New ways to prevent skin cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancer risk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

Being exposed to ultraviolet radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer.

Some studies suggest that being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and the sensitivity of a person’s skin to UV radiation are risk factors for skin cancer. UV radiation is the name for the invisible rays that are part of the energy that comes from the sun. Sunlamps and tanning beds also give off UV radiation.

Risk factors for nonmelanoma and melanoma cancers are not the same.

  • Risk factors for nonmelanoma skin cancer:Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time.Having a fair complexion, which includes the following: Fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan, or tans poorly.Blue or green or other light-colored eyes. Red or blond hair. Having actinic keratosis. Past treatment with radiation.Having a weakened immune system.Being exposed to arsenic.
  • Risk factors for melanoma skin cancer:Having a fair complexion, which includes the following: Fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan, or tans poorly. Blue or green or other light-colored eyes.Red or blond hair.Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time.Having a history of many blistering sunburns, especially as a child or teenager.Having several large or many small moles.Having a family history of unusual moles (atypical nevus syndrome).Having a family or personal history of melanoma. Being white.

It is not known if the following lower the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer:

Sunscreen use and avoiding sun exposure

It is not known if nonmelanoma skin cancer risk is decreased by staying out of the sun, using sunscreens, or wearing protective clothing when outdoors. This is because not enough studies have been done to prove this.

Sunscreen may help decrease the amount of UV radiation to the skin. One study found that wearing sunscreen can help prevent actinic keratoses, scaly patches of skin that sometimes become squamous cell carcinoma.

The harms of using sunscreen are likely to be small and include allergic reactions to skin creams and lower levels of vitamin D made in the skin because of less sun exposure.

It is also possible that when a person uses sunscreen to avoid sunburn they may spend too much time in the sun and be exposed to harmful UV radiation.

Although protecting the skin and eyes from the sun has not been proven to lower the chance of getting skin cancer, skin experts suggest the following:

  • Use sunscreen that protects against UV radiation.
  • Do not stay out in the sun for long periods of time, especially when the sun is at its strongest.
  • Wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, sun hats, and sunglasses, when outdoors.

Chemopreventive agents

Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to try to reduce the risk of cancer. The following chemopreventive agents have been studied to find whether they lower the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer:

It is not known if the following lower the risk of melanoma:

Sunscreen

It has not been proven that using sunscreen to prevent sunburn can protect against melanoma caused by UV radiation. Other risk factors such as having skin that burns easily, having a large number of benign moles, or having atypical nevi may also play a role in whether melanoma forms.

Counseling and protecting the skin from the sun

It is not known if people who receive counseling or information about avoiding sun exposure make changes in their behavior to protect their skin from the sun.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are conducted with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are conducted with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

New ways to prevent skin cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for nonmelanoma skin cancer prevention trials and melanoma prevention trials that are now accepting patients.

Changes to This Summary (05/31/2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government’s center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about skin cancer prevention. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:

National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Skin Cancer Prevention. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/skin/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 2,000 scientific images.

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