Skin Cancer

Get the Facts

What Is Skin Cancer?

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.  Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.

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.

Did You Know…?

  • One in five Americans will get skin cancer in his or her lifetime.[1]
  • Melanoma is among the top five cancers for adults age 20 to 34.[2]
  • 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.[3]
  • Studies show a relationship between starting to indoor tan at a younger age and more frequent tanning and increased skin cancer risk. [4]


[1] American Academy of Dermatology.  (n.d).  Skin cancer.  Retrieved from
[2] New York State Cancer Registry.  (2018) Skin cancer in New York State: Tenth annual report 2017.
[3] 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
[4] Boniol, M., Autier, P., Boyle, P., & Gandini, S. (2012).  Cutaneous melanoma attributable to sunbed use: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 345:e4757.  doi:

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.

  • 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; and/or
  • A personal history of skin cancer.

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:

  • Seek shade especially between 10am and 4pm;
  • Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses;
  • Apply sunscreen with SPF 15 of higher. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming, excessive sweating, or toweling off; and
  • Keep newborns out of the sun.

Start sun protection habits at an early age. Skin damage from UV exposure adds up over time, increasing the risk of getting skin cancer with 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 employers can help prevent skin cancer. Worksites can offer education and reminders to staff, install shade outside, provide sunscreen at no charge, and adopt an internal policy which addresses sun safety.  By adopting a sun safety policy, organizations can help make the healthier choice the easier choice for staff, students, families, and patrons.

Spread the Word

Individuals, families, worksites, and communities can all do their part to stress the importance of sun safety and the dangers of UV rays.  To learn more about preventing skin cancer or if your business or organization would like to learn more about adopting a sun safety policy, contact a local Cancer Prevention in Action resource in your county.

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