Who is most at risk for skin cancer?

Genetics have been found to play a role in skin cancer, with Caucasians experiencing the highest incidence of the disease. In addition, people with a large numbers of pigmented moles are at significantly higher risk of developing melanoma.

The following are risk factors for skin cancer:
  • Persons with sun sensitivity (sunburn easily, difficulty tanning, natural blonde or red hair color)
  • Persons with history of prolonged sun exposure, such as two or more childhood sunburns and/or exposure to tanning booths
  • Persons with a history of cigarette smoking
  • Occupational exposure to coal tar, pitch, creosote or arsenic compounds, or radium
  • Persons with dysplastic nevus syndrome
  • History of basal cell or squamous cell cancer
  • For melanoma: persons with prior melanoma or one or more family members who have melanoma or moles

Anyone can develop skin cancer. Skin cancer is caused by a combination of genetic factors, along with environmental factors, such as UV exposure from the sun. In general, patients with lighter skin are at a higher risk from UV light because they lack the protection that more pigment naturally will give. A history of blistering sunburns is a risk factor for developing skin cancers, so the best way to prevent developing a skin cancer is to protect you from sunburns. You can't control your genetics, so you need to make sure that you get regular total body skin exams from your dermatologist. Also, in addition to annual checks, it is important to have any new or changing spots checked out!

Ajay K. Sahajpal, MD
Transplant Surgery

Most skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma) are linked to prolonged and excessive sun exposure and sunburns. In general, fair-haired (red) and skinned individuals and those with familial syndromes are most susceptible. Having said that, all individuals with a history of frequent burns are at risk in the long term.

There are genetic factors at play with skin cancer, and there have even been a number of genes that have been identified. Much work is being done to determine the role of testing for these genes; however, at the current time, we still have a way to go with respect to being able to test an individual's genetic risk by searching for specific genes. You do inherit your "skin type" from your family, so if your parents are fair-skinned, then you are also likely fair-skinned, and we know that is a risk factor. Other risk factors include a family history of melanoma, exposure to ultraviolet radiation (i.e., the sun), increased numbers of benign moles on your body (usually greater than 50 to 100) and a personal history of "atypical moles."
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

No one should live as though they're immune to the disease, but people with an abundance of freckles or moles are more likely to develop skin cancer.

Use a sunscreen and wear protective clothing to safeguard your skin from the sun's harmful rays.

Anyone may develop skin cancer, but people with fair complexions are more susceptible to precancerous conditions and skin cancer than people with darker skin tones. Caucasians have a tenfold increased risk of developing skin cancer than African Americans. Darker skin has more melanin, which provides some natural protection against the sun's damaging rays. In addition to fair skin, risk factors for skin cancer include:
  • exposure to toxic materials, such as arsenic
  • radiation therapy
  • chronic non-healing or scarred skin, such as long-standing ulcers or severe burn scars
  • a family history of melanoma skin cancer or other conditions that are more likely to develop into skin cancer (such as dysplastic nevus syndrome)
  • a personal history of skin cancer
  • a tendency to freckle or burn easily
  • lots of sun exposure throughout your life
  • many sunburns as a child or adolescent
  • outdoor summer employment during adolescence
  • burns
  • tanning bed use (frequent use of tanning beds may increase your risk of melanoma by 40 to 75%, depending upon frequency of use and the age at which you began tanning.)
People with an elevated skin-cancer risk include individuals with fair skin, a history of sunburns and excessive sun exposure, a large number of moles or atypical moles, and a personal or family history of skin cancer, as well as those with a compromised immune system or a history of exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Examine your skin once a month to look for new moles or changes in existing ones. Follow the A-B-C-D-E rule: asymmetry (a mole that looks different on one side than on the other); border irregularity (anything jagged, blurry or protruding); color changes, or the appearance of multiple colors; diameter -- moles larger than 6 mm (about 1/4 inch); and evolution -- rapid changes in any of the above. Report anything suspicious to your doctor or dermatologist.
Some risk factors for skin cancer include:
  • Red or blond hair
  • Fair skin
  • A blistering sunburn early in life
  • Prone to sunburn
  • Any tanning bed use
  • Spending a lot of time outdoors for work or recreation
Historically, skin cancer was most commonly diagnosed in older adults. More cases are now being seen in younger people and an alarming increase of melanoma in young women that is likely associated with tanning bed use.

Continue Learning about Skin Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.