Who Is Most at Risk for Skin Cancer?

Dermatologist examining patient
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Who is most at risk for skin cancer?  Everyone is, in fact, at risk of developing skin cancer, but some people are predisposed for a number of reasons.  Having an awareness of these risks, if any, may help encourage you to watch your skin closely and avoid settings that likewise may raise your risk.

In the list below, general risk factors for skin cancer are discussed.

  Some of these raise the risk of basal cell skin cancer, some the risk of squamous cell skin cancer, and others the risk of melanoma.  Yet several of these risk factors increase the risk of all forms and deserve extra attention.

Who is Most at Risk for Skin Cancer?

There are a number of personal characteristics as well as medical conditions and lifestyle setting that raise the risk, including:

Body Characteristics

  • People with freckles.
  • Those with fair skin tones.
  • Those who burn easily.
  • People with light colored eyes, like green and blue eyes.
  • People with naturally red or blonde hair.
  • Age - basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer risk increase with age, whereas melanoma often occurs in younger people.
  • People with a lot of moles, especially those with dysplastic nevi (abnormal moles.)
  • Those with actinic keratosis.

Medical conditions

  • Those with a personal history of skin cancer.
  • Those on certain medications which can increase sun sensitivity or skin cancer risk, including a few antibiotics and some chemotherapy medications.
  • Those who have had previous radiation therapy - The increased risk is present only in the areas where radiation was received.
  • Those with a number of genetic syndromes which raise risk, such as xeroderma pigmentosa.
  • A family history of skin cancer in any relatives.
  • Those with immune system deficiencies, either hereditary or acquired such as AIDS.

    Leisure and Occupation

    • Those who spend a lot of time outdoors either for work or play.
    • Those who enjoy sun worshiping.
    • Those who use indoor sun lamps or tanning booths.

    Keep in mind that everyone is at risk for skin cancer, even those with darker complexions like African Americans and people of Hispanic/Latin origin. Although their risk of developing skin cancer isn't as high as fair skinned people, they are especially at risk for melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer.

    An Important Note About Vitamin D

    When talking about skin cancer prevention, it's critical to also talk about vitamin D. Vitamin D is a vitamin that functions more like a hormone in the body, and is important in many functions such as bone metabolism.  It's been found that vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for many types of cancer - often cancers with a prognosis much poorer than that of skin cancer. 

    Unfortunately, sunscreens block not only burning rays but block the formation of vitamin D as well.  You may see that dairy products are supplemented with vitamin D, but it would take very large amounts of these products to get your ideal daily need.

    It may sound like a two-edged sword to face, but the solution is actually pretty easy.

      Talk to your doctor and ask to have your vitamin D level checked.  Make sure to ask for the number as well.  For example, the normal range at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota is 30 to 80, but studies suggest that numbers over 50 are better for cancer prevention purposes.  Depending on your level, your doctor may suggest that you take a vitamin D supplement.  Before just running to the pharmacy and self-prescribing vitamin D, think twice.  One side effect of getting too much vitamin D is more painful than a sunburn: kidney stones.

    How Can People Most At Risk Protect Themselves from the Sun

    Use Sunscreen. I know you have heard it a million times, but sunscreen really is your best bet to prevent skin cancer if you spend a lot of time outdoors.

    Choose a sunscreen that is at least SPF 15 or higher. Sunscreen should be worn daily.

    Avoid direct exposure to midday sun. Basically, this means do not go outdoors when the sun's rays are at its brightest, which is 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

    Stay shady. Staying in the shade not only will keep you cooler, it will reduce your risk of skin cancer. Stay out of the sun's harmful rays.

    Wear protective clothing. Clothing like a wide brimmed hat or sunglasses is a good start to prevent skin cancer. The glasses will protect your eyes and eyelids, while the hat will protect your face. Try to cover areas of the skin that will be exposed to the sun.

    What to Watch For?

    Keep an eye on your skin and talk to your doctor if you notice any abnormal spots.  This can be particularly difficult if you have a lot of moles, and some dermatologists recommend taking pictures yearly.  Check out this mole vs melanoma skin identification gallery along with this skin cancer photo gallery.


    American Cancer Society. What are the risk factors for melanoma skin cancer? Update 03/20/15. 

    American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. Skin Cancer (Non-Melanoma): Risk Factors and Prevention. 06/2015.. 

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What are the risk factors for skin cancer? Updated 08/25/14. 

    Skin Cancer Foundation. African Americans Who Develop Melanoma Have a Worse Prognosis Than Whites. August 17, 2001