Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Can basal and squamous cell skin cancer be prevented?

Not all basal and squamous cell skin cancers can be prevented. But there are things you can do that could help reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Limit ultraviolet (UV) exposure

The best way to lower the risk of skin cancer is to limit your exposure to UV rays. Practice sun safety when you are outdoors. Simply staying in the shade is one of the best ways to limit your UV exposure. If you are going to be in the sun, “Slip! Slop! Slap! … and Wrap” is a catch phrase that can help remind you of some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself and those you love from UV rays:

  • Slip on a shirt
  • Slop on sunscreen
  • Slap on a hat
  • Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them

Stay in the shade

Look for shade, especially in the middle of the day, between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest. If you are not sure about how strong the sun is, use the shadow test: if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are the strongest, and you need to protect yourself. Keep in mind that sunlight (and UV rays) can come through light clouds, reflect off water, sand, concrete, and snow, and can reach below the water’s surface, so protect your skin whenever you are outdoors.

Protect your skin with clothing

Some clothes give more protection from UV rays than others. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts are the best. Dark colors protect better than light colors. A tightly woven fabric protects better than loosely woven clothing. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too. Dry fabric is usually more protective than wet fabric.

Some clothing is made with built-in UV protection. There are also newer products that can increase the UV protection factor (UPF) value of clothes you already own. Used like laundry detergents, they add a layer of UV protection to your clothes without changing the color or how the cloth feels. This can be useful, but it’s not exactly clear how much it adds to protecting you from UV rays, so it is still important to follow the other steps listed here.

Wear a hat

A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is best because it protects areas often exposed to the sun, such as the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp. A shade cap (which looks like a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric draping down the sides and back) also is good. These are often sold in sports and outdoor supply stores.

A baseball cap can protect the front and top of the head, but not the neck or the ears. Straw hats are not as good as ones that are made of tightly woven fabric.

Use sunscreen

Use sunscreen and lip balm. Broad spectrum products (which protect against different types of UV rays) with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more are recommended.

Always follow the label directions when applying sunscreen. Be sure to use enough (a palmful) and put it on again at least every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating. Use sunscreen even on hazy or days with light or broken cloud cover because UV rays still come through.

Sunscreens are a filter – they do not block all UV rays. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’re using sunscreen, you can stay out in the sun longer. Sunscreen should not be used to gain extra time in the sun, because you will still end up with damage to your skin.

Wear sunglasses

Wrap-around sunglasses that absorb at least 99% of the UV rays help protect your eyes and the skin around your eyes.

Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps

Many people believe the UV rays of tanning beds are harmless. This is not true. These also give off UV light and can increase the risk of skin cancer. Most skin doctors and health groups advise against using tanning beds and sun lamps.

If you want a tan, one option is a sunless tanning lotion. These can make you look tan without the danger. You do not have to go out in the sun for these to work. The color tends to wear off after a few days. Most sunless tanning lotions don’t protect very much from UV rays. If you use one, you should still take other measures mentioned above to protect your skin.

Some tanning salons offer a spray-on tan. A concern here is that the spray should not be inhaled or sprayed in or on the mouth, eyes, or nose. People who choose to get a spray tan should make sure to protect these areas.

Protect children from the sun

Be especially careful about sun protection for children. Children tend to spend more time outdoors, and they burn more easily. It’s important to cover your children as fully as is reasonable. Teach them to protect themselves from the sun as they get older.

Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected from the sun using clothing and hats. Sunscreen may be used on small areas of exposed skin only if enough clothing and shade are not available.

A word about sun exposure and vitamin D

Doctors are learning that vitamin D has many health benefits. It may even help to lower the risk for some cancers. Vitamin D is made by your skin when you are in the sun. How much vitamin D your body makes depends on many things, such as how old you are, how dark your skin is, and how brightly the sun shines where you live. At this time, doctors aren’t sure what the best level of vitamin D in the body is. When you can, it’s better to get vitamin D from your diet or vitamins rather than from sun, because they do not increase the risk for skin cancer.

To find out more about how to protect yourself and your family from UV rays, see our document Skin Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection.

Avoid harmful chemicals

Certain chemicals, such as arsenic, can increase a person’s risk of skin cancer. People can be exposed to arsenic from well water in some areas, pesticides and herbicides, some medicines, and in some imported herbal remedies. Certain jobs, such as mining and smelting, can also expose workers to arsenic.

Check your skin regularly

Checking your skin regularly may help you spot any new growths or abnormal areas and show them to your doctor before they even have a chance to turn into skin cancer. To learn more, see the section “How are basal and squamous cell skin cancers found?”


Last Medical Review: 02/24/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2014