- Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
- What is skin cancer?
- What is ultraviolet (UV) radiation?
- Are some people more likely to get sun damage?
- How do I protect myself from UV rays?
- What about tanning pills and other tanning products?
- Skin exams
- What should I look for?
- What if I find something suspicious?
- Additional resources
What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is a cancer that starts in the skin. Some other types of cancer start in other parts of the body and can spread to the skin, but these are not skin cancers.
There are 2 main types of skin cancers: keratinocyte cancers (basal and squamous cell skin cancers) and melanomas.
- Basal and squamous (skway-mus) cell skin cancers are by far the most common cancers of the skin. They start in cells called keratinocytes (kuh-rat-in-o-sites), the most common cells in the skin.
- Melanomas (mel-uh-NO-muhs) are cancers that develop from melanocytes (mel-an-o-sites), the cells that make the brown pigment that gives skin its color. Melanocytes can also form benign ([be-nine] non-cancerous) growths called moles.
There are other types of skin cancers as well, but they are much less common:
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Cutaneous (skin) lymphoma
- Skin adnexal tumors (tumors that start in hair follicles or skin glands)
- Various types of sarcomas
Together, these types account for less than 1% of all skin cancers.
It’s important for doctors to tell these types of skin cancer apart, because they are treated differently. It’s also important for you to know what skin cancers look like. This may help you find them at the earliest possible stage, when they are cured most easily.
Basal and squamous cell cancers
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are the most common cancers of the skin. Both are found mainly on parts of the body exposed to the sun, such as the head and neck. These cancers are strongly related to the amount of sun exposure a person has had.
Basal and squamous cell cancers are much less likely than melanomas to spread to other parts of the body and become life threatening. Still, it’s important to find and treat them early. If left untreated, they can grow larger and invade nearby tissues and organs, causing scarring, deformity, or even loss of function in some parts of the body. Some of these cancers (especially squamous cell cancers) can spread if not treated, and in some cases they can even be fatal.
These cancers are discussed in more detail in our document Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cell.
Melanomas can occur anywhere on the body, but are more likely to start in certain locations. The trunk (chest and back) is the most common site in men. In women, the legs are the most common site. The neck and face are other common places for melanoma to start.
Melanomas are not as common as basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, but they can be far more serious. Like basal cell and squamous cell cancers, melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages. But if left alone, melanoma is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body, where it can be very hard to treat.
Melanomas are discussed in more detail in our document Melanoma Skin Cancer.
Last Medical Review: 12/11/2013
Last Revised: 02/20/2014