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What Causes Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is more complex than you might think. Find out what causes skin cancer and how to reduce your risk.
If there is one thing we know to be true, it’s that cancer is a complex disease. Skin cancer is no different in this regard. Despite the abundance of studies on the subject, many causes of skin cancer are not as well understood as some people may believe.
The sun—specifically, ultraviolet light—is the cause of skin cancer, right? While ultraviolet radiation plays a major role in the development of skin cancer, this doesn’t paint a complete picture.
After all, plenty of people get skin cancer on areas of the body that aren’t exposed to UV rays. Clearly, ultraviolet radiation isn’t the only cause of skin cancer. To fully understand the development of skin cancer, we need to take a deeper dive into the research.
Here are three things you should know about the causes of skin cancer:
- Sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer, making the vast majority of cases entirely preventable.
- Sun behavioral patterns can influence your risk of skin cancer.
- Wearing daily sunscreen and getting regular skin care screenings are critical to reducing your risk of skin cancer.
Ultraviolet Rays and the Skin
Let’s start with the primary cause of skin cancer: ultraviolet radiation. When you forget to apply your daily moisturizer with SPF, your face is at the mercy of the sun’s UV rays. These UV rays can damage the DNA in our skin cells, causing mutations that can lead to skin cancer.
But there is more to it than that. Researchers have studied the development of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers and found that each type has correlations with specific patterns of sun exposure:
- Chronic Sun Exposure—How many times were you sunburned as a child? If the answer is “a lot,” you may be more at risk of non-melanoma skin cancer. According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, researchers found a strong link between long-term sun exposure and non-melanoma skin cancer, specifically squamous cell carcinoma (see claim: “Lifetime sun exposure was predominantly associated with an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma (p-value for trend=0.03)…”)
- Short, Intense Sun Exposure—In contrast, melanoma (the most-deadly type of skin cancer) has been linked to brief yet intense periods spent in the sun, where the individual experiences a severe sunburn with blistering. According to a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Cancer, researchers found an association between sporadic yet intense patterns of sun exposure (see claim: “Intermittent sun exposure and sunburn history were shown to play considerable roles as risk factors for melanoma…”)
Additional Risk Factors Associated with Skin Cancer
There are several additional risk factors which can impact the relationship between UV rays and skin cancer. While many of them make sense, researchers still don’t understand the underlying mechanisms of skin cancer development.
For example, we know that those with fair skin tend to burn more easily than those with dark skin, which increases their risk of skin cancer. This makes sense, as UV light can change our DNA and cause mutations that lead to skin cancer.
We also know from a 2013 study published in the European Journal of Cancer that obesity is linked to a higher risk of melanoma (see claim: “…overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk of malignant melanoma among males.”) While it’s unfortunate that researchers still don’t know why this is, we now know that losing weight is one way to reduce the risk of skin cancer.
What else can increase your risk of getting skin cancer? In addition to what we’ve already mentioned, here are a few other risk factors for skin cancer that you should know:
- History of skin cancer
- Excess moles or abnormal moles
- Precancerous lesions
- Weakened immune system
- Red hair and blue eyes phenotype
- Exposure to arsenic and other carcinogenic substances
Causes of Skin Cancer
By now, we’ve established that UV radiation isn’t the only factor that influences skin cell mutation. While researchers don’t have all the answers, we can break down the main causes of skin cancer into the following categories:
Biological—Genetics, age, gender, ethnicity and other biological factors that are out of your control can influence your skin cancer risk.
Environmental—Those who live in high altitudes where the earth’s atmosphere is at its thinnest are at a greater risk of skin cancer. Similarly, those who live in places that receive lots of sunshine are also at a higher risk.
Lifestyle—Your occupation (i.e., working outside), diet and other lifestyle factors can affect your risk of skin cancer.
Reduce Your Risk: Get Screened for Skin Cancer
Along with wearing sunscreen every day, don’t dismiss the importance of a yearly skin cancer screening. We promise that skin cancer screenings aren’t scary and guys especially can benefit from them due to their increased risk of melanoma.
So, what are you waiting for? Call your dermatologist and get going with that skin cancer screening. Your skin and your health will thank you for it.