Skin cancer starts in a person’s skin and can spread to other areas. UV rays from sunlight, tanning beds, and sun lamps can damage an individual’s skin cells and increase the risk of the disease.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) notes that around 1 in 5 people develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

The three most common types of skin cancer are:

While BCC and SCC are more common, melanoma causes more deaths because it spreads quickly to other parts of the body.

This article outlines the risk factors for skin cancer and how to help prevent it. It also explains how skin cancers develop and the signs to look for.

Learn all about skin cancer.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most skin cancers are due to overexposure to UV light. Other risk factors include:

  • Skin color: Although anyone can develop skin cancer regardless of skin color, it is more common among people with lighter skin tones.
  • Eye color: People with lighter skin also tend to have blue or green eyes and are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Natural hair color: People with naturally blond or red hair have a higher risk.
  • Sunburn: The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) explains that getting sunburned increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. They say that if a person has had five or more sunburn episodes, their risk of developing melanoma doubles.
  • Indoor tanning: Tanning beds and sun lamps emit high UV rays. According to the SCF, these can be 10–15 times more powerful than those from the sun.
  • Age: Although the likelihood of developing skin cancer increases with advancing age, anyone, including children, can develop it.
  • Freckles and moles: People with large numbers of freckles or moles may be at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

Learn more about how the sun causes skin cancer.

People can reduce the risk of skin cancer by avoiding exposure to UV rays. According to the CDC, people should follow the below measures.

Practice sun safety outdoors

Even on cloudy days, UV rays can penetrate a person’s skin. The AAD advises using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above on all exposed skin. People often overlook their face, neck, ears, and head when applying sunscreen, so the CDC recommends wearing wide-brimmed hats to avoid burning these areas. The agency also suggests wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts.

Avoid the hottest part of the day

The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains that UV rays are stronger during the middle of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. They also caution that UV rays can bounce off reflective surfaces, including snow, water, and sand.

Seek shade

Staying in the shade can reduce the number of UV rays hitting the skin. The ACS suggests using a shadow test to check when the sun is strongest. If a person’s shadow is shorter than they are, the sun is high, and they should consider seeking shade.

Avoid indoor tanning

Tanning beds, booths, and lamps use high levels of UV to darken the skin. The AAD says indoor tanning equipment increases a person’s risk of developing BCC by 24% and SCC by 58%. Using tanning beds before the age of 20 years increases an individual’s risk of melanoma by 47%, and the risk increases with each use.

Wearing sunglasses

The ACS recommends wearing sunglasses, particularly large-framed or wraparound UV-blocking ones, to protect the eye area from UV rays. If the label says “Meets ANSI UV requirements” or “UV absorption up to 400nm,” the sunglasses block at least 99% of UV rays.

Learn about tanning safely and minimizing the risks.

The CDC explains that skin cancers start in the epidermis, the uppermost layer of the skin. Squamous cells are on the topmost layer of the skin, with basal cells just underneath. Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. They are along the lower edges of the epidermis.

The first symptoms of skin cancer are usually changes in the skin’s appearance. People may notice new moles appearing, have sores that do not heal, or develop new growths.

Find pictures of skin cancer.

According to the AAD, anyone can develop skin cancer regardless of their skin color. However, people with darker skin tones may not notice some early warning signs, and doctors often diagnose these skin cancers at a later stage when they may be more difficult to treat.

Learn about skin cancer by race and ethnicity.

The SCF recommends people check their skin monthly for new blemishes or moles. They should also seek medical advice if they find anything new or unusual or have a spot that has changed shape or color.

Overexposure to UV light causes most skin cancers. People can limit their UV exposure by protecting their skin with sunscreen, covering it with clothing, wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, and staying in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

Indoor tanning equipment, including tanning beds, booths, and lamps, emit UV rays. Avoiding these may significantly reduce someone’s risk of developing skin cancer.