Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer. These cancers begin in different layers of the skin.

Squamous cell carcinoma starts in the upper region of the epidermis, the top layer of skin. Basal cell carcinoma starts in the lower area of the epidermis, the basal cell layer. They tend to develop after long-term exposure to the sun or ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Read on to learn more about basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. This article discusses symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment options, and more.

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Non-melanoma skin cancer is a type of skin cancer that does not begin in the melanocytes. Melanocytes are a type of skin cells, and cancers that grow from these cells are called melanoma skin cancers.

There are two main types of non-melanoma skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type.

Both of these non-melanoma skin cancers cause growths on the skin’s surface. These growths typically do not spread to other parts of the body. However, squamous cell carcinoma has a slightly higher risk of spreading.

Learn more about the types of skin cancer.

The symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancers may vary according to the individual and the type of cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinomas often appear round, raised, and shiny. They most often grow on the neck or head.

Other symptoms that may indicate basal cell carcinoma include:

  • a scaly, irritated, raised patch of skin
  • a waxy mark that looks like a scar and is white, yellow, or the same color as the skin
  • a reddish or pink growth with a dip in the center
  • a sore that does not heal
  • a round growth that may be red, pink, black, brown, tan, or the same color as the skin

These growths may be itchy, numb, or sensitive. Most basal cell carcinomas are pink or red, but they may be other colors, such as brown, black, or the same color as the skin.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinomas may appear as:

  • firm growths with a dome-like shape
  • growths that resemble warts
  • scaly areas that may appear reddish and rough
  • open sores
  • brown spots on the skin

Squamous cell carcinomas may be itchy, tender, sore, or numb. They are most common on the:

  • lips
  • ears
  • face
  • hands
  • bald scalp

In the early stages, a person may not experience any symptoms.

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas typically develop after long-term exposure to UV rays. This exposure may come from spending time outdoors in the sun or from using tanning beds.

Repeated exposure to UV rays can damage the cells that make up the skin. This damage can cause skin cells to grow out of control. It can also turn off tumor suppressor genes, which help protect the body from cancerous growths.

Some research suggests that use of indoor tanning beds can increase a person’s chance of developing basal cell carcinoma by 24%. People with a history of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, are also more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma.

When diagnosing basal or squamous cell carcinoma, a doctor will generally begin with a physical exam, during which they will examine potentially cancerous skin growths. They will also ask questions about any symptoms a person is experiencing.

If a doctor suspects basal or squamous cell carcinoma, they may order a skin biopsy. This procedure involves removing a sample of skin and sending it to a laboratory for testing. Tests of the skin sample can confirm a diagnosis of skin cancer.

Treating non-melanoma skin cancer typically involves removing the affected area of skin. However, treatments may vary depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is.

Basal cell carcinoma

Treatment for basal cell carcinoma generally begins with surgery to remove a cancerous growth. The specific type of surgery depends on where the carcinoma is and how deep it reaches into the skin.

Other treatment options for basal cell carcinoma include:

  • light therapy
  • cryosurgery
  • topical medications
  • radiation

Squamous cell carcinoma

Surgery is the most frequent treatment for squamous cell carcinoma as well. However, this form of cancer has a higher chance of spreading than basal cell carcinoma. Treatment options can depend on whether and how far it has spread.

Common treatment options include:

  • surgical removal of skin growths
  • cryosurgery
  • laser surgery
  • electrosurgery
  • light therapy
  • topical medications
  • radiation

After treatment, it is important for a person to visit their doctor for regular follow-up visits. This can help a doctor identify signs that the cancer has spread.

Learn more about skin cancer treatments.

The most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. Around 75% of all skin cancer cases involve this form of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma accounts for around 80% of all basal and squamous cell carcinoma diagnoses.

Here are some frequently asked questions about basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Which is more serious: Basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma?

Although treatment is successful in around 90% of cases for both types of cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma can be more serious for some people. Of the two, squamous cell carcinoma is more likely to spread to other areas of the body, although this happens in only rare cases.

Does basal cell carcinoma turn into squamous cell carcinoma?

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas affect different layers of the skin. Basal cell carcinoma begins in the basal skin layer and does not turn into squamous cell carcinoma. However, people with a history of basal cell carcinoma may have a higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma later in life.

Squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma are the two most common forms of skin cancer. They are both types of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Most cases of non-melanoma skin cancer occur after long-term exposure to the UV rays from sunlight or tanning beds. Surgical removal of these cancers is often enough to treat them.

People who have symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma should visit a doctor for a full evaluation. Seeking treatment promptly is the best way to ensure that treatment is as effective as possible.