What Are the Different Types of Skin Cancer?

Squamous cell, basal cell, and melanoma skin cancers

looking at a suspect skin spot under a magnifying glass
Peter Dazeley Collection/Getty Images

You may have heard that there are different types of skin cancer, and if so, you are correct. The 3 basic types of skin cancer include:

  • Basal cell carcinoma of the skin
  • Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin
  • Melanoma

Of these cancers, you may also hear them divided into 2 categories: non-melanoma skin cancers - including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma - and melanoma skin cancers.

Other rare cancers can sometimes be found on the skin as well, such as Kaposi's sarcoma, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, and Merkel cell carcinoma. In addition, some cancers have a tendency to spread to the skin. In this case, these are not called skin cancers, but cancer which has spread (metastasized) to the skin. For example, a breast cancer which as spread to the skin would not be called skin cancer, but rather "breast cancer metastatic to the skin." Some cancers that metastasize to the skin include breast cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer.

Why is it Important to Know the Different Types of Skin Cancer?

The different kinds of skin cancer vary with respect to symptoms, the most common appearance on the skin, the treatments used, and the prognosis.  This is especially important with regard to melanoma, for which the surgical approach is often much different than would be used for a basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma.

These differences are important when it comes to genetics as well.  If you have a family history of melanoma, your physician might be more aggressive in having you followed by a dermatologist.  Likewise, your dermatologist may be more aggressive with doing a biopsy or taking yearly photos of your moles for comparison.

  It's currently thought that 55% of melanomas have a genetic component.

There is one very important similarity between all types of skin cancer.  Though these are more common in people with fair skin, they may all occur in people with even the darkest complexion.  And even though sun exposure is a risk factor for these cancers, all have been found in locations on the body which have never been exposed to the sun.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Accounting for more than 75% of skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma is the most commonly diagnosed skin cancer. These carcinomas are most commonly found on the face, neck, and hands.

These cancers are considered highly treatable and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms may include a sore that oozes or bleeds, a red, irritated appearing area, a yellow or white area that resembles a scar, and a pink pearly bump.

Even those these cancers rarely spread, they can grow large and cause significant disfigurement and scarring when removed.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer and has the strongest association with sun exposure.  This skin cancer type usually develops in places on the body that have been exposed to the sun, like ears, the face and the mouth, but can develop anywhere on the body.

Symptoms may include a sore which does not heal, a scaly area, or reddened bump - evidence that these cancers tend to grow deep into the skin.  When left untreated, they can spread quickly to other parts of the body by way of the bloodstream or lymphatic system, yet 95% remain curable.

Squamous cell carcinomas often develop in previous actinic keratoses (sun spots) so if you have any of these lesions, make sure to point them out to your doctor and consider having them removed.


Melanoma is the most dangerous and deadly type of skin cancer.  Even though it is the least common type, it is responsible for most deaths from skin cancer.

  It can develop on any part of the body, however, the arms, legs, and trunk are the most common area of the body.   Melanoma may also develop in areas such as the eye (ocular melanoma.)

When detected early, it is considered highly treatable. Some of these occur as a new "spot" on the skin, whereas others arise out of moles.

Everyone should learn the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma whether you are a sun worshiper, or never go outside when it is light out.  These letters stand for:

  • A - Asymmetry - Melanomas tend to be asymmetric
  • B - Border - Melanomas tend to have an irregular border
  • C - Color - Melanomas tend to have varied colors, with the classic being a "red, white, and blue" pattern
  • D - Diameter - Melanomas tend to be larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser
  • E - Elevation - Melanomas tend to be elevated, especially having areas of different elevation
  • F - Some people add another letter standing for "funny looking."  Melanomas often simply don't look like they belong on the skin

Skin Cancer Prevention

The best treatment for skin cancer is prevention, but in addition to reviewing these steps for skin cancer prevention that everyone should know, a few very important points are worth noting.

While sunscreen is recommended, it does not prevent all cancers.  In fact, it has yet to be shown that wearing sunscreen can decrease the risk of melanomas.  Protecting yourself from the sun the "old-fashioned" way is often the best way to reduce your risk.  Avoiding the sun during peak hours (such as between 10 am and 2 pm) wearing hats and protective clothing, and using an umbrella or other methods of shade are still the best way to protect yourself. And in choosing sunscreen make sure you get a preparation which guards against UVA rays or you will be wasting your time and money as far as adding protection against melanoma (many sunscreens only protect against UVB rays.)

Have your vitamin D level checked. Wearing sunscreen not only blocks burning rays but also results in a decrease in the formation of vitamin D from your skin.  While we don't know if sunscreen reduces the risk of melanoma, we do know that a deficiency of vitamin D raises the risk of several cancers.  And sadly, a significant percent of the population has a vitamin D deficiency.  A simple blood test can tell you if you are at risk, and if low, your doctor can recommend either dietary measures or a supplement to raise your levels. 


American Academy of Dermatology. Types of Skin Cancer. Accessed 04/15/16. https://www.aad.org/public/spot-skin-cancer/learn-about-skin-cancer/types-of-skin-cancer

National Cancer Institute. Skin Cancer Treatment – Health Professional Version (PDQ). Updated 01/29/16. http://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/hp/skin-treatment-pdq