Is Sun Exposure the Only Cause of Skin Cancer?


Skin cancer is one of the most common and treatable forms of cancer when caught in the early stages. Any person can develop skin cancer, but the cause depends on the type of cancer diagnosed as well as the person’s skin type. People with lighter colored hair, eyes, and skin have a greater risk of developing skin cancer because their body contains less melanin that protects them from sun damage. Continuous exposure to the sun without the protection of sunscreen, hats, lightweight long-sleeved clothing, and other barriers increase the risk of developing skin cancer as well.

Although long-term, unprotected sun exposure is a leading cause of skin cancer, it’s not the only cause. It depends largely on whether a doctor diagnoses a non-melanoma or melanoma type of skin cancer.

Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer and the Relationship to Sun Exposure

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two types of skin cancer not associated with melanoma. These types usually develop many years of sun exposure. The most typical places for a non-melanoma type of skin cancer to appear to include sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, ears, neck, hands, and lower arms. However, some people have a genetic pre-disposition to non-melanoma types of skin cancer and may develop either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma without prolonged sun exposure.

Skin Cancer Symptoms

Self-monitoring is important for all types of skin cancer. Doctors recommend that you regularly check your skin and use the ABCD rule to determine if you have a potential abnormality. This acronym stands for the following:

  • Asymmetry: When looking at a mole or birthmark, both halves should appear equal. If one half is a different size or appears jagged, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.
  • Border: You may have skin cancer if the borders of a mole or birthmark appear blurred, irregular, notched, or ragged.
  • Color: Markings on your skin should have a uniform color. Consider it a warning sign if part of a skin marking contains various shades of black or brown or appears tinged with blue, pink, red, or white.
  • Diameter: When you measure the spot with a ruler, it should not be more than six millimeters going across. However, some types of melanoma skin cancers can appear smaller than this.

If you have one of the two types of non-melanoma skin cancer, you may notice one or more of these symptoms:

  • A sore that crusts, bleeds, or oozes without scabbing over and healing for a period of several weeks
  • One patch of skin appears tight and shiny like a scar
  • A red, raised patch with or without itching
  • A dip in the skin with a raised border
  • A shiny, pearl-like bump

The terms basal cell and squamous cell refer to the layer of the skin where a doctor diagnoses a carcinoma, which means the skin contains cancer cells. Basal cell skin cancer means that cancer is present in the skin’s epidermis. Squamous cell skin cancer resides in the skin’s subcutaneous layer.

Common causes of non-melanoma skin cancer besides prolonged sun exposure and frequent sunburns

  • Rare inherited genetic skin disorders such as Gorlin syndrome
  • A history of fragile skin
  • Age over 50
  • Use of tanning beds
  • Fair complexion or freckles
  • Precancerous skin conditions such as actinic keratosis
  • A weakened or compromised immune system

If your provider is concerned about an area based on the symptoms listed above, your provider will make a referral to a dermatologist for a more detailed evaluation.

Melanoma Skin Cancer

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer because it can spread to other parts of the body. When caused by sun exposure, it’s typically due to brief and intense exposure rather than prolonged exposure over time. This type of cancer develops in pigments cells under the skin called melanocytes. Early indications of melanoma include new blemishes, markings, lumps, moles, or sores. Many people also experience changes in the way their skin feels or looks. The same ABCD guidelines used for detection of non-melanoma skin cancer is also appropriate for melanoma.

Initially, it’s often challenging for people to know which of the three types of skin cancer they have. That’s why receiving a prompt evaluation from a dermatologist is essential. Some of the symptoms associated with melanoma are the same as those of non-melanoma skin cancer, including sun exposure, light complexion, freckling, previous skin cancer, age over 50, and family history. Having numerous moles, especially those classified as dysplastic nevi or congenital melanocytic nevi, also increases the risk.

Reducing Your Risk of Skin Cancer

You can’t control some risk factors associated with skin cancer, such as age, family history, or pigmentation. However, it’s important to manage those than you can control. Be sure to protect yourself in the sun by using sunscreen and limiting the time you spend in direct sunlight. You should also avoid the use of tanning beds and sunlamps as medical researchers have linked both to skin cancer.

Additionally, we recommend performing monthly skin checks to look for abnormal moles or anything in the ABCD skin cancer diagnosis criteria. Skin cancer is highly treatable when detected early, so don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with your Western Maryland Health System provider if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.