Anyone who’s regularly exposed to the sun has reason to worry about skin cancer. But some people have a greater skin cancer risk than others.
“There are a number of known skin cancer risk factors,” says Jeffrey E. Gershenwald, M.D., medical director of the Melanoma and Skin Center at MD Anderson.
Recognizing your risk factors can help you take steps to protect yourself.
Who’s at increased risk?
Skin cancer risk factors tend to fall into two categories.
Genetic risk factors for skin cancer are qualities that you inherited and cannot be changed.
- Family history of skin cancer
- Fair skin, blue or green eyes or blond or red hair
- More than 50 moles or unusual moles
- A skin condition or syndrome that increases your sensitivity to sun exposure
Personal health risk factors for skin cancer are based on your health or habits.
- Personal history of skin cancer
- History of frequent or intense sun exposure
- One or more blistering or peeling sunburns, especially as a child
- History of tanning bed use
- A compromised immune system, due to an organ transplant, radiation treatment or other cause
Gershenwald says the use of indoor tanning beds in particular has been associated with a significant leap in skin cancer rates for younger adults.
Even if you don’t have some of the genetic risk factors, you can still be susceptible to skin cancer. Those with darker skin, eyes and hair are still at risk for it from sun exposure, especially young adult women.
Anyone who assumes he or she is not at risk is wrong, Gershenwald says. “Not worrying or not thinking about skin cancer can lead to later-stage diagnosis, which increases the odds for some of the more serious health outcomes,” he says.
If you feel you may be affected by any of these risk factors, you should talk to your health care provider.
What to watch out for
Self-examination is an important part of skin cancer safety. Be sure to check your body from head to heels regularly.
If you notice any new marks or abnormal skin lesions, show your doctor. They could be a sign of melanoma, a more dangerous type of skin cancer.
When it comes to melanoma, follow the ABCDE guidelines for identifying skin lesions and moles:
Asymmetry. If you drew an imaginary line through the middle of the mole, its two halves don’t match.
Border. An uneven or irregular border around your mole.
Color. The color of your mole is not consistent or uniform.
Diameter. Your mole is larger than a pencil eraser.
Evolving. Your mole looks different than it used to look.
Even these guidelines won’t always flag a suspect lesion or mole. If you notice any new skin marks, abnormal marks or note that a mark or mole is changing, show your doctor.
Protect yourself from the sun
Regardless of your risk factors for skin cancer, take the following steps to protect yourself:
- Reduce or avoid ultraviolet light exposure. That means staying out of the sun as much as possible—especially when the sun’s rays are strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Steer clear of tanning beds.
- Whenever you spend time in the sun, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher. “Apply it liberally 30 minutes before you go outside,” Gershenwald says.
- Wear clothing that blocks UV rays. In general, synthetic fabrics are better than something like cotton. Don’t forget to wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Seek shade whenever possible.
“Tanned skin is damaged skin,” Gershenwald says. If you’re overexposing your skin to the sun, you’re putting your health at risk.