With any disease or medical condition, there are groups that are at a higher risk of getting sick. Skin cancer is no different. In order to take the best preventative measures, know the skin cancer risk factors and what behaviors could move you to a higher-risk group.
The most basic answer to “who is at risk for skin cancer” is: everyone. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US and in the world, with 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer by the age of 70. More than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin every day in the US, and 2 people in the US die every hour from this disease. People of all skin tones, ages, genders, lifestyles and medical conditions can develop skin cancer. Skin cancer is most frequently caused by too much exposure to UV light, which usually comes from sunlight. So, if you’ve spent time in the sun, you are at risk. Some skin cancers develop in areas of the body that aren’t exposed to the sun -- this is especially true for people with darker skin tones. One famous case is Bob Marley, who died at age 36 from a form of melanoma that started as a dark stripe under his fingernail. No one is immune to the danger of skin cancer.
There are some behaviors that can greatly increase your risk for developing skin cancer, such as overexposure to UV light. One of the most dangerous sources can be tanning beds, which can emit UV radiation in amounts 10 to 15 times higher than the sun at its peak intensity. Some think that the light from tanning beds is safe. This isn’t true. More people develop skin cancer from tanning beds than those who have lung cancer from smoking. The danger of tanning beds can catch up to you early: women who use tanning beds are 6 times more likely to develop melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) in their 20’s than those who never used tanning beds. Thankfully, the use of tanning beds has been decreasing and people have become more informed about their links to skin cancer.
Indoor tanning devices aren’t the only source of UV light. Sunlight is a far more common culprit for triggering skin cancer. Around 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are attributed to UV radiation from the sun. Your chance of developing melanoma more than doubles if you have had more than 5 sunburns or 1 blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence. Sun damage doesn’t just happen due to sunburns though. UV damage can happen anytime and builds up over time. If you are older and have signs of sun damage, like wrinkled or leathery skin, age or liver spots, or actinic keratosis (precancerous spots), you are probably at greater risk for developing skin cancer. No matter your age, any behaviors that cause you to be more exposed to the sun put you in a higher risk category. This includes time spent outside in a bathing suit doing things like water sports or sunbathing, living or vacationing in areas that receive a lot of sunlight, and being in the sun when its UV rays are strongest (from 10am-2pm). UV rays penetrate clouds, so spending lots of time outside without skin protection on overcast days is also risky.
There are some high risk categories you can’t change. One of those is having a family history of skin cancer. Melanoma is one type of skin cancer that can be linked to genetics. Approximately 10% of those with melanoma have a family history of the disease, usually linked to a first-degree relative (parents, brothers, sisters or children). If you’ve had skin cancer previously, you are far more likely to develop it again. Even if you’ve had one type of skin cancer (like a squamous cell carcinoma), you are at higher risk of developing another kind (like melanoma).
Moles are a kind of benign tumor that develop in most people in childhood and early adulthood. Most moles are harmless. However, if you have a lot of moles (more than 40), you are an increased risk for developing melanoma. If you have irregular moles, especially more than 10 of them, you are in a higher risk category. Irregular moles are those that are larger than normal moles (larger than a pencil eraser) or are irregular in shape and color. Abnormal moles also tend to run in families.
Another risk factor you have no control over is your skin tone, hair color and eye color. Individuals with light skin that freckles or burns easily, light eye color (blue or green), and red or blonde hair are far more likely to get sun damage and develop skin cancer. This is because the skin pigment (melanin) has a protective element in it for those with darker skin tones.
Regardless of your risk factors, you should be diligent in preventing sun damage and vigilant in checking your body for signs of skin cancer. Skin cancers that are detected early are far more likely to be treated successfully. You should get into the routine of doing a monthly self-check and an annual visit to the dermatologist for a skin cancer screening. It’s also helpful to become informed on the early signs of skin cancer so you know what you are looking for in your monthly skin cancer check. Wear sunscreen daily -- broad spectrum and SPF of 15 or higher, especially on your face, which gets sun exposure even as you go to and from buildings or sit in your car. Wear protective clothing when you are in the sun for longer periods of time and try to stay in the shade as much as possible when outside.
Contact Vanguard Dermatology, located in the greater New York City area. At Vanguard you’ll receive care from an experienced, board-certified dermatologist, who can evaluate your risks for developing skin cancer, perform skin cancer screenings and advise you on preventative measures to take against skin cancer.