Skin cancer happens when the cells in your skin begin to grow abnormally. There are many types of skin cancer, based on what cells are involved.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. About 1 in 5 Americans will develop it at some point in their lifetime.

Although you may not be able to completely prevent skin cancer, there are steps you can take to help reduce your risk for getting it.

Did you know that your skin is the largest organ in your body? It has many layers that protect you against sunlight, heat, cold, injury, and many types of infection.

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Illustration by Diego Sabogal

Within those many layers, there are two main layers that act as protectors: the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis has three main types of cells within its layer:

  • squamous cells
  • basal cells
  • melanocytes

The dermis is the layer that contains blood, hair follicles, and glands.

The most common causes of skin cancer are exposure to:

These factors can cause skin cells to develop abnormal DNA, which then cause the growth and development of cancer cells.

When skin cancer develops, the type of cells it affects determines what kind of cancer it is. For example:

  • Skin cancer that develops in the basal cells is known as basal cell carcinoma. It’s the most common form of skin cancer and is also the slowest growing.
  • Skin cancer that develops in the squamous cells is known as squamous cell carcinoma. It often shows up as red, scaly lesions or sores on the skin. This type of skin cancer usually isn’t life threatening, but it can become dangerous if it’s left untreated.
  • Skin cancer that develops in the melanocytes (the cells that create pigment) is called melanoma. This is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It’s more likely to spread than basal and squamous cell skin cancers. It causes the majority of skin cancer deaths each year.

While some types of skin cancer have a genetic component, there are a lot of things you can do to prevent skin cancer from developing.

Get skin cancer screenings

Even if you don’t have any skin concerns, it’s a good idea to have yearly skin cancer screening checks with a dermatologist. They’ll be able to see areas of your body you can’t easily monitor.

A dermatologist will also be able to evaluate any moles or other skin growths for the possibility of skin cancer. If a mole has suspicious features and looks like it may be malignant (cancerous), removing it early may prevent it from spreading to other areas of your body.

Wear sunscreen

You know summer is right around the corner when you see the shelves stocked with sunscreen, but how do you know which one to pick? Here are some helpful tips when selecting the best sunscreen:

  • Look at the SPF. If you’re going to be in direct sunlight for a period of time, choose a sunscreen with at least an SPF 50. If you burn easily, a higher SPF will give you better coverage.
  • Choose broad spectrum. A broad spectrum sunscreen has the ability to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays have longer wavelengths that can cause burns and skin cancers. UVB rays have shorter wavelengths that can cause burns, age spots, and wrinkles.
  • Reapply. Make sure you reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. Reapply more often if you get wet.
  • Note the expiration date. Make sure you’re buying sunscreen with a long shelf life. If there’s no expiration date, it should be good for 3 years from the date you bought it.

The sun can do damage to your skin in as little as 15 minutes, so it’s important to do everything you can to protect your skin while you’re soaking up those rays.

Here are some good sun safety tips:

  • Seek shade. If you’re going to be spending time outdoors, seek shade so you’re not in direct sunlight. This is especially important between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when UV radiation from the sun is most intense.
  • Wear sunglasses. Not only will sunglasses help protect your vision, they can also protect the more delicate skin around your eyes. Most sunglasses will block both UVA and UVB rays. Make sure the pair you buy can protect you from both types of rays.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. If you’re going to be outside in the sun for long periods of time, you may want to consider wearing long sleeves and pants. Look for clothes made with breathable, lightweight fabric so you can stay cool.
  • Wear a hat. The skin on your face is delicate, so give it some extra protection with a hat. Wide-brimmed hats offer the most protection from the sun, and can be pretty fashionable while they’re at it.

Staying out of the sun but using a tanning bed instead doesn’t reduce your risk for UV damage and skin cancer.

In fact, according to more than 20 studies, the risk of cutaneous melanoma increases by 75 percent if you start using a tanning device before the age of 30.

These findings are backed up by another study that concluded indoor tanning is carcinogenic to humans. According to this study, tanning beds pose an increased risk of melanoma even if you do not burn.


The use of retinol products like Retin-A to prevent skin cancer is controversial. Research shows that retinol can increase the creation of new skin cells, which may prevent skin cancer.

However, there’s a catch: Retinol can make your skin much more sensitive to sun exposure. This means if you’re using retinol products, you’ll have to be extra cautious when outside for long periods of time. Wear sunscreen when using retinol-containing skin products.

Vitamin B-3

Niacinamide (a form of vitamin B-3) has been shown to lower the risk of certain types of skin cancers in some high-risk individuals.

According to older research, niacinamide may:

  • reduce inflammation
  • build proteins in the skin
  • improve the moisture content of your skin

This may help protect the skin from environmental damage, including sunlight.

However, niacinamide hasn’t been widely studied, so its side effects aren’t fully known yet.

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to stay vigilant and monitor your skin. If you have any of the following symptoms, it’s a good idea to call your doctor:

  • a mole with irregular borders
  • a sudden, fast-growing skin growth
  • a patch of scaly, red skin that doesn’t go away
  • sudden pain, tenderness, or itchiness
  • bleeding or oozing from a skin spot

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. In many cases, you can take steps to reduce your risk for developing skin cancer.

The most effective steps you can take to prevent skin cancer include limiting your time in the sun, wearing sunscreen, avoiding tanning beds, and getting regular skin cancer screenings.