Skin Cancer: Causes and Signs

Sunseekers may not always understand the risk they are taking by exposing their skin to sunlight for prolonged amounts of time without sunscreen. It is often not until they have to seek out a skin cancer dermatology clinic for help. Understanding the causes and signs of skin cancer and identifying it is the first step in avoiding skin cancer dermatology specialists.

What is Skin Cancer?

The simple definition for skin cancer is an abnormal growth of cells on the skin. However, there is much more to this cancer that skin and cancer dermatologists understand in diagnosing and treating patients.

Skin Anatomy

The skin is a living organism and is the largest organ of the human body. It is made up of three layers:

  • the epidermis: The epidermis is the top layer. This layer sheds dead cells daily. On average, over four million cells are shed every day.
  • the dermis: In a continuous cycle, the lower epidermis layers make cells that will be the top layer of the epidermis as the dead ones shed.
  • subcutaneous tissue

Skin Cells

The epidermis is made up of different types of skin cells.

  • keratinocytes: the primary cells in the epidermis;
  • basal cells: these are keratinocytes located deeper in the epidermis;
  • squamous cells: keratinocytes that have moved up in the epidermis layer and have become thin;
  • Langerhans cells: these cells carry bacteria, cancer, and other foreign materials to the lymph nodes.

Skin cancer dermatology specialists identify the various types of skin cancer using these cell types.

Types of Skin Cancer

The identification of the cancer type is important in treating it properly. Identification is essential so that the treatment is successful. There are seven different types of skin cancer identified by the American Academy of Dermatologists:

  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
  • Melanoma
  • Cutaneous T-Cell lymphoma
  • Dermatofibrosarcoma (DFSP)
  • Merkel cell carcinoma
  • Sebaceous carcinoma

Most people have heard of basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. Skin cancer dermatology focuses on identifying cancer, treating cancer, and educating patients on skin cancer prevention.

Common Causes and Risk Factors

Most people are aware that prolonged exposure to the sun or ultraviolet rays from tanning beds can cause damage, including cancer. However, many people do not realize that there are risk factors that increase the odds of getting skin cancer, such as:

  • Skin tone: People of all skin tones can be affected; however, fair-skinned people tend to be more susceptible. Melanin is the pigment that provides skin tone and protects the skin from damage. People with light skin tones have less melanin.
  • History: People with a family history who have had skin cancers in the past are at higher risk for developing skin cancer.
  • Immune system issues: People with HIV or who take medications that suppress the immune system have an increased risk.
  • Exposure: In addition to the sun, exposure to substances such as arsenic or radiation exposure may develop skin cancer.
  • Moles: The presence of moles is a risk factor for cancer.
  • Sunburn: People who have a history of sunburn may sustain damage that does not appear until later in life.
  • Residence: Warm climates and high altitudes tend to have more cases than colder temperatures.

While everyone should know the signs of skin cancer and what it looks like, those who have one or more risk factors need to be more aware. If caught early, treatment can be more successful.

Skin Cancer Signs & Symptoms

As with any health condition, some signs and symptoms indicate skin cancer and aid in early diagnosis. Noticeable variations to existing conditions should be checked as soon as possible. There are also specific signs of some types of skin cancer that should be noted. Regularly checking the skin for any changes is the first step in finding any abnormalities and then consulting skin and cancer dermatologists.

Most Common Types of Skin Cancer

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma presents in several different ways. A basal cell typically appears on areas that receive the most exposure to the sun, such as the face, neck, ears, scalp, and other highly exposed areas. If any of these signs appear, a skin cancer dermatologist should be consulted.

  • A pinkish patch or bump that is flesh-colored or a small bump that resembles a pearl and that may or may not have associated pain or itching.
  • Any sore or spots that persist even with treatment; or,
  • An area that is flat white, like a scar, or it could be pale or waxy in color. This area would appear to be shiny with no visible borders.

Basal cell is the most common form of skin cancer. If detected early, it is possible to stop local destruction.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell skin cancer is more severe than basil cell. It has a rapid growth rate and can quickly spread. Any sores,  damage,or injuries should be monitored. Squamous cells can be found in these and present as wrinkly with a loss of pigmentation and elasticity. Wart-like growths and scaly patches of skin that may open and bleed should be examined to rule out cancer.


Melanoma is the most dangerous skin cancer and can be fatal if it metastasizes. However, early detection makes it possible to cure it. It primarily presents from prolonged exposure to the sun or tanning beds. Melanomas most often appear as mole-like growths. Skin cancer dermatologists recommend using these steps in recording changes:

  • Asymmetry: Draw a line through the suspect growth. Melanoma growths are typically asymmetrical, meaning the two halves do not match.
  • Border: Note the perimeter of the growth. Moles usually have a smooth border, while melanomas have scalloped or notched edges that are uneven.
  • Color: Melanoma growths have color variations, whereas typical moles are a shade of brown.
  • Diameter: Record the size of moles; any growth is a sign that should be checked. If the initial size is the pencil eraser’s diameter or larger, a dermatologist should be consulted.
  • Evolving: Moles that change in any way should be cause for concern and checked.

Keeping notes of skin growths such as moles when performing self-assessments is proactive in finding melanoma. People that are high risk may have a body scan to note and track all skin growths.


Understanding what causes skin cancer and identifying the symptoms is an essential step in maintaining good health. Early detection can be valuable in treatment options. Early detection reduces the possibility of it spreading and lowers mortality rates. High-risk individuals should consider a consolation with a skin cancer dermatologist for a total body assessment.

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