+ -Text Size

A risk factor is anything that affects a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.

But having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease may have had few or no known risk factors.

Risk factors for basal and squamous cell skin cancer

Ultraviolet (UV) light: Ultraviolet (UV) light is thought to be the major risk factor for most skin cancers. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Tanning beds are another source of UV rays. To learn more about the effects of UV rays on the skin and what you can do to protect yourself, see Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.

Light-colored skin: Whites have a much higher risk of skin cancer than African Americans or Hispanics. People with fair (light-colored) skin that freckles or burns easily are at extra high risk.

Older age: The risk of skin cancer goes up as people get older.

Male gender: Men are about twice as likely as women to have basal cell cancers and about 3 times as likely to have squamous cell cancers of the skin.

Chemicals: Exposure to large amounts of arsenic increases the risk of skin cancer. Workers exposed to coal tar, paraffin, and certain types of oil may have an increased risk, too.

Radiation: People who have had radiation treatment have a higher risk of getting skin cancer in the area that was treated. This is a special concern in children who have had cancer treatment.

Having had skin cancer before: Anyone who has had a basal or squamous cell cancer has a much higher chance of having another one.

Certain long-term or severe skin problems: Scars from bad burns, areas of skin over bad bone infections, and skin damaged by certain skin diseases are more likely to develop skin cancer, but this risk is fairly small.

Psoriasis treatment: Patients with psoriasis (a long-lasting inflammatory skin disease) who get PUVA treatments have a higher risk for skin cancer.

Certain diseases people are born with: People born with xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) or basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) often get many skin cancers, starting at a young age.

Weakened immune system: People with weak immune systems are more likely to develop some types of skin cancer. This includes people who have had organ transplants and people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

HPV infection: A small number of skin cancers in the genital and anal areas and around the fingernails seem to be linked to infection with human papilloma virus (HPV).

Smoking: Smoking is a risk factor for squamous cell skin cancer, but it is not a known risk for basal cell cancer.

Last Medical Review: 05/06/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016