Skin Cancer Prevention — Common Causes Revealed
Reviewed by Heidi A. Waldorf, MD
The vast majority of skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and tanning beds. The fairer your skin, the greater your chance of developing skin cancer. People with a history of substantial ultraviolet exposure — particularly during childhood — are at increased risk for skin cancer, as are those with occupations or leisure time activities that keep them outside for long periods of time and those who frequent indoor tanning booths. Both chronic and short bursts of ultraviolet exposure are associated with an increased risk.
The most common sites for skin cancer are the face, neck and head because they are the most sun-exposed parts of the body.
Skin Cancer Risk: Practice Sun Safety
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends the following sun safety steps to lower your risk for skin cancer:
- Seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Do not burn or tan.
- Avoid UV tanning booths; spray tanning booths are safe.
- Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher on all exposed skin every day.
- Apply one ounce (about a shot glass) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours.
- Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of 6 months.
- Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
- See your dermatologist every year for a professional skin exam.
Skin Cancer: Other Risk Factors
Exposure to the sun is not the only risk factor for skin cancer. Other contributing factors associated with skin cancer risk include:
- Contact with certain chemicals (arsenic and petroleum by-products)
- Radiation exposure
- Open sores that resist healing
- Chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis
- Complications of burns, scars, infections, vaccinations, or tattoos.
In addition, a number of diseases, medical conditions and treatments weaken the immune system and may make it more difficult for the body to fight off diseases, including skin cancer. These include HIV and other immune deficiency diseases, chemotherapy, and anti-rejection drugs taken by organ transplant patients. People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who are treated with biologic drugs called TNF blockers have higher rates of skin cancer than those who take other disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs.
Skin Cancer/Breast Cancer Connection
Having either breast cancer or melanoma raises the odds of developing the other. Exactly how the two cancers are linked is not fully understood, but genes may play a role. Women with abnormalities in the BRCA2 breast cancer gene are twice as likely to develop melanoma as those without mutations in this gene.
Information about skin cancer treatment is available in our in-depth article on the subject.
About the Reviewer of this Article
Heidi A. Waldorf, MD, is the director of Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, NY, and an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Dermatology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and received her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. After completing her internship training at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and her residency in the Department of Dermatology at Harvard University School of Medicine, Dr. Waldorf completed a fellowship program in Mohs Micrographic Surgery, Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatologic Surgery. She is a diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, a fellow of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, a fellow of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, a member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, and a fellow of the American College of Mohs Micrographic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology. Dr. Waldorf sees patients at her offices in New York, NY, and Nanuet, NY.
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