What You Need to Know About Basal Cell Carcinoma

Know the signs of this common type of skin cancer and how to lower your chances of getting it.

A healthcare provider uses a magnifying device to examine a patient's skin.

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Updated on February 4, 2022

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer, with approximately 3.6 million cases diagnosed in the United States every year. Other types of skin cancer include squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, which is less common but the most dangerous form.

What causes it?
BCC is caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun, especially when your skin is unprotected. This includes both cumulative exposure that piles up over the years, as well as intense, episodic exposure, like that heinous sunburn you got at the beach one summer.

What are the symptoms to look out for?
BCC often looks like an open sore, particularly one that doesn't heal or that heals only to return. It may also bleed, ooze, or form a crust. It is generally red or pink, but may also be brown, black, yellow, or white. It may also appear as a patch of peeling skin or a shiny bump.

Regardless of the specific look and feel, if you ever develop a new skin marking that resembles a mole, a growth, or any kind of change to your skin, you should get it checked out by your healthcare provider (HCP) to make sure that it’s not a form of skin cancer.

In one notable example, in 2021, Australian actor Hugh Jackman had a BCC patch removed from his skin for the fifth time. Jackman said he only went to see an HCP after being pressured by his wife. His experience underscores the importance of having any skin changes seen promptly by a professional. When in doubt, get it checked out.

Where does BCC appear?
Unlike melanoma, BCC only spreads very rarely. BCC can also be extremely disfiguring, especially on areas including the face and head. The most common sites of occurrence are on areas exposed to the sun. These include your face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back.

How can you prevent it?
The best way to lower your risk of BCC is to limit your exposure to UV rays from the sun. Follow these sun-safety pointers:

  • Try to avoid direct sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • As much as possible, avoid sunburns. Of course, most people don’t intend to get sunburn, but on sunny days at the beach, a few minutes of unprotected exposure can drag into hours. Plan ahead with sun protection.
  • Cover up with clothing, especially clothing with built-in sunscreen if you’re somewhere with high sun exposure.
  • Always skip tanning salons and UV booths.

Above all, wear sunscreen year-round, not just when you’re lounging by the pool in the summertime. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protective factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Even in the wintertime, it’s wise to apply this to your face and neck every day.

Be especially careful with children and infants, who are even more susceptible to the results of UV exposure. Research has shown that UV exposure in childhood and the teenage years has the greatest impact on one’s eventual risk of skin cancer.

What are the treatments for BCC?
Treatment will depend on the progression of a skin cancer, the tumor size and location, and your general health and preferences. When caught early enough or when lesions are small, most treatments for BCC can be performed on an outpatient basis with minimal pain, leaving little scarring. If you have a small tumor, it's less likely to recur than a large tumor, although recurring tumors can also typically be treated effectively.

BCC treatments include topical medications (those applied to the skin), electrosurgery, excisional surgery, Mohs surgery, radiation therapy, photodynamic therapy, cryosurgery, and laser surgery. In rare cases where the BCC spreads to other parts of the body, a targeted drug can often slow its growth.

Article sources open article sources

Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics. Last updated: January 2022.
American Cancer Society. What Causes Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers? Last Revised: July 26, 2019.
Cleveland Clinic. Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC). Last reviewed on July 5, 2019.
Ali Venosa. Skin Cancer Foundation. Sun & Skin News. Is Basal Cell Carcinoma Serious? Let's Ask Hugh Jackman. August 11, 2021.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Basal Cell Carcinoma Prevention & Risk Factors. Accessed February 3, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Treating Basal Cell Carcinoma. Last Revised: February 10, 2021.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin Cancer Types: Basal Cell Carcinoma Signs And Symptoms. 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sun Safety. Page last reviewed: April 28, 2021.
Skin Cancer Foundation. Basal Cell Carcinoma Treatment. Last updated: April 2021.

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