What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer?

Photo of a mother and child on the beach. Both are wearing sunglasses, hats, and long-sleeved shirts.

People burn or tan depending on their skin type, the time of year, and how long they are exposed to UV rays.

Anyone can get skin cancer, but people with certain characteristics are at greater risk—

  • A lighter natural skin color.
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun.
  • Blue or green eyes.
  • Blond or red hair.
  • Certain types and a large number of moles.
  • A family history of skin cancer.
  • A personal history of skin cancer.

Exposure to UV Rays

Regardless of whether you have any of the risk factors listed above, reducing your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can help keep your skin healthy and lower your chances of getting skin cancer in the future. Most people get at least some UV exposure from the sun when they spend time outdoors. Making sun protection an everyday habit will help you to enjoy the outdoors safely, avoid getting a sunburn, and lower your skin cancer risk.

Indoor tanning (using a tanning bed, booth, sunbed, or sunlamp to get tan) exposes users to high levels of UV radiation for the purpose of getting a tan. When UV rays reach the skin’s inner layer, the skin makes more melanin. Melanin is the pigment that colors the skin. It moves toward the outer layers of the skin and becomes visible as a tan.

A tan does not indicate good health. A tan is your skin’s response to injury, because skin cells signal that they have been hurt by UV rays by producing more pigment. Any change in skin color after UV exposure (whether it is a tan or a burn) is a sign of injury, not health. Over time, too much exposure to UV rays can cause skin cancers including melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer), basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. UV exposure can also cause cataracts and cancers of the eye (ocular melanoma). Every time you tan, you increase your risk of getting skin cancer.

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