Skin Cancer Causes
One of the most common forms of cancer in the United States affects the skin. More than 2 million people receive a skin cancer diagnosis from their doctors annually. Several types of skin cancer exist, but the most common include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. People get skin cancer for several reasons and diagnosing the condition early can prolong a person’s life. People diagnosed with melanoma improve their chances of survival in five years by 98% if they receive an early diagnosis.
What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is a potentially deadly disease that causes cancerous cells to develop in a person’s skin. The skin performs important tasks, including storing vitamin D, water and fat. The skin also protects a person’s body from disease, bacteria and infection through two main layers of protection. The upper layer of the skin, called the epidermis, contains three types of cells: basal, melanocytes, and squamous. Skin cancer develops in the cells of the skin’s layers.
Basal Cell Carcinoma & Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Skin cancer affects people with fair colored skin more often than those with darker skin. People who spend substantial time in the sun or tanning booths increase their risk of getting the disease. For example, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports that high school or college students who have one indoor tanning session each year increase the risk of getting basal cell carcinoma by 10% and the risk increases 73% if someone tans six times per year. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer and usually occurs on the face.
Melanoma occurs in the melanocyte cells of the skin. The melanocyte cells in the skin contain a substance called melanin, which provides the color a person’s skin has. Generally, adults get melanoma, although doctors sometimes find melanoma in children and adolescents. While melanoma is not as common as basal and squamous cell cancers, it causes the highest number of deaths.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
Several conditions contribute to the development of skin cancer. Sunburn and sunlight play a significant role in getting the condition. A person’s heredity—a history of skin cancer in the family—also influences the condition. In addition, the environment contributes to an increased risk of skin cancer.
Sunburn and Sunlight
The sun’s ability to burn skin contributes significantly to the development of skin cancer. In addition, the sun emits ultraviolet, or UV, light. The skin’s reaction to UV light is tanning. The total amount of sun a person receives over their lifetime contributes to skin cancer. By the time a person turns 18 years old, they may have received 80% of the sun exposure they will receive over their lifetime.
People inherit certain conditions, similar to how children look a lot like their parents. Genes—the basic unit of heredity—determine a lot about a person’s health and appearance. People who have a family history of cancer are usually more likely to have a cancerous condition. In addition, people with fairer skin or of northern European descent appear to get skin cancer more often.
The environment also plays a supporting role in skin cancer. The UV light emitted by the sun has increased in intensity over the last century. The Earth’s ozone layer—an invisible screen in the atmosphere that filters sunlight—has reduced due to pollution and a range of other conditions. As a result, the amount of UV light that reaches Earth’s surface has increased.
In addition, a person’s elevation influences their exposure to UV light. The UV light increases the higher up a person lives. Cloud cover can significantly reduce the amount of UV light that reaches the ground. Cloud density plays a role in how much UV light reaches people.
How Does a Person Know if They Are at Risk?
Scientists and researchers estimate that one out of every seven people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Exposure to the sun that causes serious sunburn can increase a person’s chances of getting the condition by 50%. People should research their family history to identify their heredity. Even if a person does not burn easily, they should protect the sensitive areas of their body, including the nose, hands and lips.
How Can People Protect Themselves?
The Skin Cancer Foundation and the American Academy of Dermatology offer the following options to prevent skin cancer:
- Children and adults should apply a sunscreen—of at least SPF-15—to the arms, legs, face and other areas exposed to the sun.
- Avoid UV light, including light emitted by tanning equipment or sunlamps.
- Clothing that protects the body from sun exposure, including hats that shade the neck, should be worn.
- Stay out of the sun as much as possible between the hours of 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM.
- Sunscreen should be applied again after swimming or sweating. In addition, people should apply sunscreen once every two hours.
- Children six months of age and older should wear sunscreen and avoid sun exposure between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Children under six months of age should not wear sunscreen and be kept in shaded areas.
For more information about skin cancer, visit the following resources: