Get the Facts
What Is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.
Skin cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the cells of the skin. Skin cancer most often develops on skin exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation (rays), but skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body.
The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly to treat. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous and causes the most deaths.
What Causes Skin Cancer?
UV rays are a major cause of all skin cancers. Too much exposure to UV rays from either the sun, or from indoor tanning devices like beds, booths, and lamps penetrates the skin, causing the skin to make more melanin, which turns skin dark or red. Any change in skin color after UV exposure (whether it is a tan or a burn) is a sign of injury, not health.
Up to 90% of melanomas are estimated to be caused by UV exposure. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and is on the rise in New York State. UV exposure can also cause cataracts and cancers of the eye (ocular melanoma).
Even if a sunburn or tan fades, the damage caused by that tan or burn does not, and the effects cannot be reversed. Most of a person’s lifetime skin damage occurs before the age of 18 years. Skin damage adds up with each sunburn or tan and may one day result in skin cancer.
What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer?
Overexposure to UV light, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds increases the risk of getting skin cancer.
- The sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes.
- Indoor tanning (using a tanning bed, booth, sunbed, or sunlamp to get tan) exposes users to high levels of UV rays for the purpose of getting a tan.
In addition, although everyone’s skin can be damaged by UV rays, people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer:
- A lighter natural skin color.
- Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun.
- Blue or green eyes.
- Blond or red hair.
- Certain types and a large number of moles.
- A family history of skin cancer.
- A personal history of skin cancer.
Did You Know…?
- One in five Americans will get skin cancer in his or her lifetime.
- Melanoma is among the top five cancers for adults age 20 to 34.
- Family members, particularly mothers, have a strong influence on indoor tanning among youth. Research shows that 44.5% of youth who started tanning before age 16 reported going with a family member. Nearly half of the time that family member was reported to be the mother.
- Studies show a relationship between starting to indoor tan at a younger age and more frequent tanning and increased skin cancer risk. 
 American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d). Skin cancer. Retrieved from www.aad.org/media/stats/conditions/skin-cancer
 New York State Cancer Registry. (2018) Skin cancer in New York State: Tenth annual report 2017. www.health.ny.gov/statistics/diseases/cancer/skin/report/docs/2017_report.pdf
 Watson, M., Shoemaker, M., & Baker, K. (2017). Indoor tanning initiation among tanners in the United States. JAMA Dermatology, 153(5):470-472. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.5898
 Boniol, M., Autier, P., Boyle, P., & Gandini, S. (2012). Cutaneous melanoma attributable to sunbed use: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 345:e4757. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e4757
Reduce Your Risk
The best way to lower the risk for skin cancer is by avoiding exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (rays), whether it be from an indoor tanning device or outdoor sunlight.
Practice Sun Safety
Protection from UV rays is important all year round, not just during the summer or at the beach. UV rays from the sun can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays also reflect off surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. Everyone should practice these sun safety behaviors:
- Wear a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, and other protective clothing outdoors.
- Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
- Find shade, especially during midday hours when the sun’s rays are strongest (10 am-4 pm).
- Start sun protection habits at an early age. Skin damage from UV exposure adds up over time, increasing the risk of getting skin cancer when we age.
Avoid Indoor Tanning
Avoiding UV radiation from indoor tanning beds, booths, and sunlamps can help prevent skin cancer. Indoor tanning is more intense than natural sun exposure and tanning devices give off high levels of UV radiation in a short amount of time. It is illegal in New York State for teenagers younger than age 18 to use indoor tanning facilities.
Be a Sun Safe Worksite and Protect Your Employees
Businesses, daycares, outdoor recreation settings, outdoor worksites, schools, and other organizations can adopt their own organizational sun safety policies to protect their workers, families, children, and patrons. The purpose of a policy is to help prevent skin cancer by promoting sun safety behaviors, changing the environment with more shade, and/or providing key education and communication.
Spread the Word
Individuals, families, and communities can all do their part to stress the importance of sun safety and the dangers of UV rays. If you would like to learn more about preventing skin cancer or if your business or organization would like to learn how to adopt a sun safety policy, please contact a local Cancer Prevention in Action resource in your county.