Causes and Risk Factors of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is a widespread problem in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 5 million basal and squamous cell carcinomas—the two most common types of nonmelanoma skin cancer—are diagnosed in the U.S. every year.

What causes skin cancer?

It’s difficult to say what exactly causes skin cancer, but research shows that cancer can form when something goes wrong during the body’s production of skin cells. Typically, skin cells grow old or become damaged over time, and normal cells grow and divide to form new, healthy cells to take their place. However, something can go wrong during this process and cause new cells to be created when the body doesn’t need them, or old cells may not die off as they should. When there’s a buildup of extra cells—old or new—they can bind together and form skin cancer.

Skin cancer risk factors

While the precise cause of this abnormal cellular behavior is unclear, researchers know that most cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer are linked to sun exposure, or more specifically, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Ultraviolet is a type of electromagnetic radiation that’s found in sunlight.

Tanning beds emit UV radiation like the sun, so artificial tanning is also considered one of the biggest risk factors for developing skin cancer. Additionally, people with fair complexions, blonde or red hair, blue eyes and/or freckles are more likely to burn rather than tan, increasing their risk for skin cancer.

The following sun-related factors can also increase a person’s likelihood of developing skin cancer:

  • Having a history of sunburns
  • Working outdoors (especially during the midday hours)
  • Frequently participating in outdoor activities
  • Living in a city with bright sunlight year round
  • Living in a high-altitude city

Skin cancer risk factors you can change

Some risk factors for skin cancer are controllable. For example, limiting your exposure to radiation can help lower your cancer risk.

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure – As discussed, the sun is the most well-known source of UV radiation, but UV rays also come from tanning beds and other artificial sources.
  • Other types of radiation exposure – In addition to UV, there are other forms of radiation that may adversely affect the skin cells, such as X-rays or therapeutic radiation.

Skin cancer risk factors you can’t change

Several lesser-known risk factors for skin cancer can’t be controlled. These include:

  • A family history of skin cancer – Some risk factors of skin cancer can be inherited through our DNA.
  • Older age – Anyone can develop nonmelanoma skin cancer, but it most often affects older adults.
  • Immunosuppression – Some conditions like HIV/AIDS and certain medications, such as those provided after organ transplants, can suppress the body’s immune system and might contribute to the development of skin cancer.
  • Skin inflammation or injury – Cancer is more likely to form on areas of inflammatory skin diseases, scars from burns and skin above bone infections.

Skin cancer prevention 

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays and avoid indoor tanning methods like tanning beds and sunlamps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following advice on how to enjoy the outdoors while keeping your skin safe:

  • Wear light, loose clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Generously apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect your face, scalp, neck and backs of the ears.
  • Opt for wrap-around sunglasses that block both UVB and UVA

FAQs about skin cancer causes and risk factors

You can browse some of the most commonly asked questions regarding skin cancer’s causes and risk factors here:

Moffitt’s approach to skin cancer 

As a nationally ranked leader in treatment and Florida’s No. 1 cancer hospital, Moffitt Cancer Center is a trusted source for skin cancer screening, diagnostics and treatment. The multispecialty team within our Cutaneous Oncology Program excels in treating all types of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers, and routinely collaborates with board-certified genetic counselors to help patients assess their hereditary risk of skin cancer.

For the best outcomes, choose Moffitt first. You can schedule an appointment to discuss skin cancer screening or your individual risk factors with a Moffitt professional by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. A referral isn’t necessary, and we’ll connect you to the right specialist for your needs within one day of contacting us to ensure you receive the timely care you deserve.


American Cancer Society: Skin Cancer

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Basic Information About Skin Cancer