National Cancer Institute


Posted Date: Aug 31, 2013

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.

Questions or Comments About This Summary

If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site’s Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.

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About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

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 are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

Images in the PDQ summaries are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in the PDQ summaries, along with many other cancer-related images, are available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a certain drug or nutrient can prevent cancer. 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 and those who are at risk for cancer. During prevention clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new prevention method and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard." People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. 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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