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The AICR Lifestyle & Cancer Symposium addresses the most current and consequential issues regarding diet, obesity, physical activity and cancer.

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Skin Cancer

Understand the risks, and take control of your health.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, but you can prevent this type of cancer by protecting yourself against the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.

This content was last updated on May 4, 2020

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the primary cause of skin cancer. The two broad categories of skin cancer are melanoma and non-melanoma. The most common, non-melanoma types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Basal and squamous cells are located in the top layer of our skin, which means they are exposed to potential sun damage. The majority of skin cancers are non-melanoma (the basal cell type) and are highly treatable, as well as highly preventable.

Statistics on non-melanoma skin cancer are often not included in cancer estimates because basal and squamous cell skin cancers are not required to be reported to cancer registries.

AICR’s latest report found arsenic in drinking water increases the risk of skin cancer. The report also found some evidence that coffee may lower the risk and alcohol may increase the risk, but some studies do not show this. More evidence related to diet and skin cancer is needed before any firm conclusions can be made related to these beverages.

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Lifestyle and skin cancer risk.

  • Diet

    There is strong evidence that drinking water containing arsenic increases the risk of skin cancer.

    • Water can become contaminated by arsenic from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices. In the US, public drinking water systems test for arsenic and are required to keep it below a specific level. Countries particularly affected by arsenic in drinking water include Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.
  • Tallness

    There is strong evidence that taller adults have an increased risk of melanoma compared to shorter adults.

    • The height itself is unlikely to directly influence the risk of cancer. It is a marker for genetic, environmental, hormonal and nutritional factors affecting growth during the period from preconception to full height.
  • Radiation

    The primary cause of skin cancer is from ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. Both the amount of time and severity of the UV rays exposure is important.

    • The best way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to protect yourself from UV radiation.
    • The more sunburns you have had throughout your life – as a child, teenager and adult – the greater the risk of skin cancer. UV radiation can directly damage DNA and also create cellular environments that are damaging to DNA.
  • Infection

    Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause squamous cell carcinomas of the skin, especially in people whose immune systems are compromised.

  • Medication

    Taking the medications needed after an organ transplant increases the risk of skin cancers, particularly squamous cell carcinoma.

  • Occupational exposure to specific chemicals

    People who work with certain chemicals used in the plastic and chemical industries have a higher risk of developing melanoma.

  • Skin pigmentation

    Skin cancer is more common in lighter-skinned people than those who have darker skin.

Take a moment to check in with your health:

Foods that fight cancer.

No single food can protect you against cancer by itself. But research shows that a diet filled with a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other plant foods helps lower risk for many cancers.

Cancer Updates

The science of survival.

AICR’s health guides and recommendations are developed from research that focuses on how nutrition and lifestyle affect the prevention, treatment, and survival of cancer. Paramount to our updates is the Continuous Update Project which helps you stay on top of new findings, and understand the data that sits at the center of our work.