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Unveiling the Unseen: 7 Surprising Factors Contributing to Skin Cancer

You’ve heard it over and over again — cover up, wear a hat and use sunscreen to protect your skin from skin cancer. Maybe you’ve heard it so often that you think sun exposure is the only thing that causes skin cancer.

While it’s true that getting too much of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays is a leading cause of skin cancer, it’s not the only thing out there that could cause the condition. It’s important to know what else to watch for so you can take steps to protect yourself and spot warning signs of skin cancer if you’re at higher risk.

Jordan Abbott, MD, a dermatologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, explained more about some of the lesser-known causes of skin cancer.

1. Tanning beds

You might think that carefully tanning your skin with a tanning bed can give you a sun-kissed glow without the risk of sun exposure. But tanning beds work by exposing your skin to UV rays, similar to the sun, in concentrated doses. 

Just like with exposure to the sun, the UV rays in tanning beds may damage the DNA in your skin’s cells and increase your risk of melanoma, squamous cell skin cancer and basal cell skin cancer. They may also make your skin age faster. 

2. Skin inflammation

Chronic (long-lasting) inflammation on the skin increases your risk. “If you have a history of severe burns or non-healing wounds, you may have a higher risk of developing skin cancers in those areas,” Dr. Abbott said.

3. Medications 

Some medications may increase your risk of skin cancer. Different drugs affect your skin in different ways, but they may make your skin more sensitive to harmful UV rays or make it harder for your body to repair damaged DNA.

Of course, you may need these medications to treat health conditions, and the benefits of taking them might outweigh the risks. If you need these medications, you’ll want to protect your skin and watch for any signs of skin cancer.

  • Immunosuppressive drugs, which you might need if you have certain autoimmune conditions or you’ve had an organ transplant. “Long-term use may increase your risk for developing skin cancer,” Dr. Abbott said.
  • Medications that make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, and may increase your risk of sunburn, such as some antibiotics, diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Psoralen combined with ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy, used to treat certain skin conditions like psoriasis.
  • Voriconazole, an antifungal medication used to treat serious fungal infections.

If you’re taking any of these medications and you’re worried about your skin cancer risk, talk openly and honestly with your health care provider. They can answer your questions, keep an eye on your health and help you find ways to reduce your risk. Be sure to have regular checkups to stay on top of any concerns.

4. Viruses

Human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes warts, may make you more likely to develop skin cancer, usually in the genital area. If you’re immunocompromised, HPV can be a risk factor for skin cancers anywhere on your body. Similarly, merkel cell carcinoma, an uncommon type of skin cancer, is linked with polyomavirus. 

“In the case of both of these viruses, there may not be any evidence of them on the skin. They are affecting the skin on a cellular level,” Dr. Abbott said. Vaccinations may reduce your risk of skin cancers related to viruses.

5. Chemicals

Exposure to some chemicals can increase your risk of skin cancer. When you’re aware of these chemicals, you can try to keep them from being exposed to them.

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in tobacco smoke and air pollution. Even non-smokers can be exposed.
  • Arsenic from contaminated water or certain foods.
  • Coal tar, which is found in some topical treatments for conditions like psoriasis.

To reduce your exposure:

  • Read labels on personal care products to see if they contain hydroquinone or coal tar. 
  • Stay informed about air quality and avoid areas with heavy pollution, if you can.
  • Consider testing your water for arsenic levels if your water source is not regulated. 
  • Limit your exposure to tobacco smoke.

6. A compromised immune system

Your immune system works to find and remove cells in your body that could become cancerous. If it doesn’t work as well as it should, it can’t get rid of these cells as easily. “The immune system is critical in recognizing and fighting off early skin cancers,” Dr. Abbott said.

You could be at higher risk of skin cancer if you:

  • Have conditions like HIV/AIDS.
  • Have received an organ transplant.
  • Are older, since your immune system may weaken with age.

You can help keep your immune system strong with:

  • A balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.
  • Regular physical activity.
  • Plenty of sleep.
  • Stress management.
  • Vaccinations

7. Your personal features and family history

Even with skin cancer that’s caused by the sun, the risk isn’t the same for everyone. “You’re at higher risk for skin cancer if you have fair skin that burns easily, light-colored eyes, red or blonde hair and more than 50 moles on your skin,” Dr. Abbott said. “However, skin cancer can affect people of all ethnicities and skin tones, so anyone with a new or changing lesion needs to have it evaluated.”

Genetics can also increase your risk — if you have a family member who has had skin cancer, your risk may be higher.

Spotting skin cancer

It’s important to check your skin regularly to watch for any signs of skin cancer. By keeping a close eye, you can spot new moles, changes in moles or other things that don’t seem right. 

Check your whole body for anything unusual, including areas that aren’t exposed to the sun. Use a mirror or ask a partner to check the areas that are hard for you to see. 

“Another sign of skin cancer can be a sore that doesn’t heal. I’ve had people who thought a spot on their skin was a bug bite that turned out to be skin cancer. If it’s not getting better as you would expect, you should get it checked out,” Dr. Abbott said.

If you see anything new or unusual on your skin, talk to a health care provider right away.  When you find skin cancer at an early stage, it might be easier to treat and less likely to get worse.

The bottom line

Sun exposure is one of the top causes of skin cancer. But other factors can increase your risk, too. Tanning beds, your personal features and family history, certain medications, immune system problems, inflammation and some chemicals may raise your risk of skin cancer.

By knowing these risks, you can take steps to minimize your exposure. If you’re at higher risk, you can keep a close eye on your skin and schedule regular checkups, so any signs of skin cancer can be spotted at the earliest, most treatable stages.

If you would like to connect with an expert who can evaluate your skin and help you reduce your skin cancer risk, reach out to Banner Health

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