Genetics determine everything from your eye color and height to the types of food you like to eat.
In addition to these characteristics that make you who you are, genetics can unfortunately also play a role in many types of diseases, including skin cancer.
While it’s true that environmental factors like sun exposure are the main culprits, genetics may also be a risk factor for developing skin cancer.
Skin cancer is broken down based on the type of skin cells that are affected. The most common types of skin cancer are:
Keratinocyte carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, and can be divided into two categories:
- Basal cell carcinoma accounts for about 80 percent of skin cancers. It affects the basal cells, which are located in the outermost layer of the skin (the epidermis). This is the least aggressive type of skin cancer.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) affects about 700,000 people in the United States each year. It begins in the squamous cells, which are found in the epidermis right above the basal cells.
Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are more likely to develop in places on your body that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as your head and neck.
While they can spread to other areas of your body, they’re less likely to do so, especially if they’re caught and treated early.
Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer, but it’s more aggressive.
This type of skin cancer affects the cells called melanocytes, which give your skin its color. Melanoma is much more likely to spread to other areas of your body if it’s not caught and treated early on.
Other, less common types of skin cancer, include:
- cutaneous T-cell lymphoma
- dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP)
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- sebaceous carcinoma
While we know that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and tanning beds increase your risk for skin cancer, your genetics, or family history, can also be a factor for developing certain kinds of skin cancer.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 10 percent of all people who are diagnosed with melanoma have a family member who has had melanoma at some point in their lifetime.
So if one of your close biological relatives, such as a parent, sister, or brother, has had melanoma, you’re at an increased risk.
Additionally, if you have a family history of melanoma and you also have a lot of unusual moles, you’re at a higher risk for developing this type of cancer.
Moles that are considered unusual or atypical tend to have one or more of the following characteristics:
- asymmetrical (one side is different from the other)
- an irregular or jagged border
- the mole is different shades of brown, tan, red, or black
- the mole is more than 1/4 inch in diameter
- the mole has changed size, shape, color, or thickness
The combination of unusual moles and a family history of skin cancer is known as familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM).
People with FAMMM syndrome are 17.3 times more likely to develop melanoma versus people who don’t have this syndrome.
Researchers have also discovered that certain defective genes can be inherited. This can increase your risk for developing skin cancer.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, DNA changes in tumor suppressor genes, such as CDKN2A and BAP1, can increase your risk for melanoma.
If these genes become damaged by ultraviolet radiation, they may stop doing their job of controlling cell growth. This, in turn, can increase the risk of cancerous cells developing in the skin.
Have you ever heard that fair or light-skinned people are at higher risk for skin cancer? This is true, and it’s due to physical characteristics you inherit from your parents.
People who are born with the following features are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer at some point during their lifetime:
- fair skin that freckles easily
- blonde or red hair
- light-colored eyes
Many cancers are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Although your genes can play a role in making you more susceptible to skin cancer, the environment plays a bigger role.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun is the primary cause of skin cancer. Tanning beds, booths, and sunlamps also produce UV rays that can be equally harmful to your skin.
According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, skin cancer is related to your lifetime exposure to UV radiation.
That’s why even though the sun can damage your skin from an early age, many cases of skin cancer only appear after age 50.
UV rays from the sun can change or damage the DNA makeup of your skin cells, causing cancer cells to grow and multiply.
People who live in sunny places that get high amounts of UV radiation from the sun are at a higher risk for skin cancer.
Even if you’re not in a high risk category for skin cancer, it’s still important to take precautions to protect your skin from sun damage.
If skin cancer runs in your family, or if you’re fair-skinned, you should take extra care to protect yourself from the sun.
Regardless of your risk factors, here are some precautions to take:
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen. This means the sunscreen has the ability to block both UVA and UVB rays.
- Use sunscreen with a high SPF. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Reapply sunscreen frequently. Reapply every 2 hours or more often if you’re sweating, swimming, or exercising.
- Limit your exposure to direct sunlight. Stay in the shade if you’re outdoors, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m, when the sun’s UV rays are strongest.
- Wear a hat. A wide-brimmed hat can provide extra protection for your head, face, ears, and neck.
- Cover up. Clothes can provide protection from the damaging rays of the sun. Wear light, loose-fitting clothing that allows your skin to breathe.
- Get regular skin check-ups. Get your skin screened every year by your doctor or dermatologist. Let your doctor know if you have a family history of melanoma or other skin cancers.
Skin cancer is typically caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors.
If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in their lives, you may be at an increased risk for this type of cancer.
Even though certain inherited gene mutations can increase your risk, exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or from tanning beds is still the biggest risk factor for skin cancer.
You can greatly reduce your risk of developing skin cancer by taking steps to protect yourself from the sun’s rays.
- wearing and reapplying a broad-spectrum sunscreen often
- covering areas of your skin that may be exposed to sunlight
- getting regular skin cancer screenings