Causes of Skin Cancer
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from repeated bouts of sun exposure is believed to be the main preventable cause of skin cancer. Energy from the sun is actually a form of radiation, with the ability to cause damage to living cells. Solar energy consists of visible light and other rays that can't be seen with the naked eye. Infrared radiation, for instance, makes sunlight feel hot. Ultraviolet radiation causes sunburn and sun tan.
UV radiation causes damage to the skin cell DNA, the genetic material of the cells. DNA controls the growth and overall health of skin cells. If the DNA damage is severe, a normal skin cell may begin to grow in an uncontrolled and disorderly way and turn into a cancer. UV also can cause sunburn, and other damage that makes the skin look prematurely old and wrinkled.
Sun exposure is the biggest preventable cause of skin cancer and premature facial aging
Who is most at risk?
Anyone can get skin cancer. Although most skin cancers occur in people over age 50 with fair skin, it can develop in younger people, even in those with darker skin. In general, an individual's lifetime exposure to UV light determines his or her risk.
Certain individuals have a risk of getting skin cancer that is higher than the rest of the population. Included are people who:
- Have light skin that freckles easily and tends to burn rather than tan. Individuals with blond or red hair and blue or light gray eyes often have fair skin. The skin type table can help determine an individual's risk.
- Live in geographic regions closer to the equator, where sunlight is strongest. Residents of California, for instance, have a greater risk than those in Washington.
- Work outdoors or spend lots of time in leisure activities in the sun, including sailing, hiking, golfing, and climbing.
- Have a history of blistering sun-burns. A history of sunburns as a child increases the individual's risk of skin cancer.
- Have a family history of skin cancer. A diagnosis of skin cancer in a close relative means that the individual has a higher-than-normal risk for the disease.
- Already have had skin cancer. A diagnosis of skin cancer means that an individual has a higher-than-normal risk for the disease. These individuals must take great care to minimize UV exposure and follow other preventive measures.
Preventing skin cancer
You can play an active role in preventing skin cancer or successfully recognizing it as early as you can. These are some suggestions:
- Seek shade and avoid sun exposure, particularly during the hours of 10 am to 4 pm.
- Wear protective gear (hat, sunglasses, protective clothing) when exposure is unavoidable.
- Use sunscreen (SPF 30 or greater, as high as SPF 65!) and don't forget to reapply it as needed.
- Self examine your skin for new growth, changing moles, or sores that won't heal.
- Follow up with your primary care physician or dermatologist, particularly if you have had a skin cancer or a pre-cancerous growth in the past.