Are you at risk for skin cancer?

Skin cancer is usually caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, such as from sunlight or tanning beds. The UV light damages genes in your skin cells. If enough damage occurs, the cells may begin to grow uncontrollably, leading to skin cancer. UV light may also make it harder for your immune system to detect and destroy skin cancer cells.

To get an idea of your own personal risk, consider two things: the amount of UV light you're exposed to, and how much protection you have from UV light. The greater the exposure to UV light, and the less protection you have, the greater your risk.

Things that can increase your UV light exposure include:

  • working at outdoor jobs
  • sunbathing
  • participating in or watching outdoor sports
  • using tanning beds or salons

Things that reduce your protection from UV light include:

  • having fair skin that burns easily (darker-skinned people have more melanin, a skin pigment that helps protect skin from UV light)
  • living close to the equator, at a high altitude, or being outside on days where the UV index is higher (greater risk of sun damage)
  • having health conditions (such as HIV) or taking medications (such as cancer or transplant medications) that suppress the immune system, since these decreases the body's ability to find and destroy skin cancer cells

Other factors that increase the risk of skin cancer include severe sunburns, excessive X-ray exposure, arsenic poisoning, or burns from radium. One particular type of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, has some extra risk factors, including a family history of skin cancer, large numbers of moles, or unusual moles.

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