3 types of skin cancer and how to protect yourself

By Tucson Medical Center

Did you know skin cancer is the most common type of cancer?

That’s especially true in Arizona, where its close proximity to the equator and the sun creates warm weather for most of the year, leading people to spend more time outside with less clothing protecting their skin from the sun.

“Skin cancer most often develops on skin exposed to the sun, but it can show up on other areas as well,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lambert, TMCOne. “Knowing the risks and what to look for is critical to prevention or early detection.”

Types of skin cancer

The three major types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

“Although nonmelanoma skin cancer spreads slowly, if left untreated, it can lead to disfigurement,” says Dr. Christine Moussa, Pima Dermatology.

“Melanoma, although much less common, is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma every day. Skin cancers of all types can present in a variety of ways, and the evaluation by your primary care physician or a dermatologist is useful in determining the next step of treating a new or concerning skin lesion.”

Basal cell carcinoma

This type of skin cancer usually occurs on areas of the body that are exposed to the sun, such as the neck or face. Look for a pearly or waxy bump; a flat, flesh-colored brown scar-like lesion; or a bleeding or scabbing sore that heals and returns.

Squamous cell carcinoma

This kind type of skin cancer often appears on areas such as the face, ears and hands. People with darker skin are more likely to see squamous cell carcinoma on areas that aren’t often exposed to the sun. Look for a firm, red nodule or a flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface.


The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma. It can develop anywhere on your body on normal skin or in an existing mole that becomes cancerous. It usually appears on the face or the trunk of men and on the lower legs in women. In men and women, melanoma can show up on areas that haven’t been exposed to the sun.

Melanoma can affect people of any skin tone. Those with darker skin tend to see melanoma form on the palms or soles or under the fingernails or toenails.

Signs of melanoma include:

• A large brownish spot with darker specks.

• A mole that changes in color, size or feel or that bleeds.

• A small lesion with an irregular border and portions that appear red, pink, white, blue or blue-black.

• A painful lesion that itches or burns.

• Dark lesions on the palms, soles, fingertips, toes or on mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose, vagina or anus.

“If you notice any of these signs and symptoms, bring them to your doctor’s attention right away,” Lambert says. “The earlier you treat skin cancer, the better.”

Reduce your risk

“You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting or avoiding exposure to ultraviolet radiation, aka UV rays,” Lambert says. Here are some ways you can do that:

• Avoid the sun during the middle of the day, when its rays are the strongest.

• Wear sunscreen year-round. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even on cloudy days. Reapply every two hours—or more often while swimming or sweating.

• Keep in mind that some medications can make skin more sensitive to sunlight. If they do, take extra precautions, such as staying out of the sun.

“Check your skin for suspicious changes to detect skin cancer early,” Moussa says. “You have a huge role in this, as you may notice a new or changing skin lesion before anyone else, in yourself or in your family members. I recommend a monthly skin examination, and for new, changing or skin lesions, seek a dermatologist’s evaluation.”