Types and Appearance of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is broadly defined as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal, mutated cells, which can lead to the formation and growth of tumors on the skin. It is also the most common form of cancer in the U.S. today, affecting one in every five Americans. 

While skin cancer was once considered to be "less serious" than other types of cancers, it can, in fact, be deadly. Nearly 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the U.S. every day. Of the most deadly form (melanoma), an average of 9,000 people will die each year as a result of the disease.

Doctor inspecting patient scalp with a dermatoscope
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Types of Skin Cancer

There are several different types of skin cancer, each with different tell-tale signs:

  • Actinic keratosis is one of the most common forms of pre-cancer that starts as a red or pink patch on areas of skin that have been frequently exposed to the sun. The patches appear dry and scaled and can be itchy.
  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, making up over 80% of all cases. It is a slow-moving cancer that is often found on the head and neck. It typically appears as a red or pink waxy bump and may have a central ulcer (or an eroded area known as a "rodent ulcer" because it looks as if a mouse had gnawed on it). These areas may bleed, but this type of cancer rarely spreads (metastasizes) beyond the skin.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the more aggressive forms of skin cancer. The affected skin will usually appear red, rough, and scaly. It is most often found on the hands, lips, ears, and other parts of the body that have not been properly protected with sunscreen. 
  • Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, causing 75% of all skin cancer-related deaths. Melanoma frequently appears as a mole or lesion with irregular borders, asymmetrical shape, and black or mottled coloration. If there is no pigment, they are called melanotic melanomas.

Determining Skin Cancer Risk

While there are several different types of skin cancer, they share many of the same causes and risk factors. Among them:

  • Fair or pale skin can place an individual at risk due to the lack of protective melanin (pigment) in the person's skin. While people with darker skin can also get cancer, those with pale skin tend to get it more frequently. This is particularly true for fair-skinned redheads.
  • Sun exposure is the one controllable factor that places a person at greatest risk. Excessive exposure to UV radiation is the main cause for many types of skin cancers, which are typically linked to the lack of sunscreen protection and previous sun damage caused in adolescence and early adulthood.
  • Family history and genetics play a big part in determining who may or may get skin cancer. Both are factors we can't control but ones that can make us better aware of the ways to reduce personal risk.

Prevention of Skin Cancer

To avoid getting skin cancer, always do the smart thing and limit your exposure to the sun, particularly when it is at its strongest, usually between the hours 10 a.m and 4 p.m. In addition:

  • Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection value (SPF) of at least 15. Children and people who have had one skin cancer already should use sunscreen with an SPF of 35 to 45; SPFs that are higher than that offer very little extra protection.
  • Use sunscreen daily regardless of the weather. Reapply every two hours if you're outdoors or anytime you get wet or sweaty. Watch the expiration date.
  • Cover your arms and legs whenever possible, ideally with pants and long sleeves. Wear a hat and sunglasses (ideally with UV protection) to better protect your head, neck, and eyes.
  • If you have to be out in the midday sun, stay in the shade or under an umbrella as much as you can.

When at home, you should also routinely screen yourself to check for any unusual marks or blemishes that may have developed on your skin.

While skin cancer is highly treatable, especially if it's caught in the early stages, detection remains key. By spotting the signs of cancer early, you stand a far better chance of being treated successfully. 

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  • National Cancer Institute. "What You Need to Know About Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers." Cancer.gov. October 2010; Rockville, Maryland; NIH Publication 10-7625.