The Basics: Overview
The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun and other sources of ultraviolet (UV) rays.
To protect yourself from skin cancer:
- Stay out of the sun as much as possible between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Cover up with long sleeves, long pants or a long skirt, a hat, and sunglasses
- Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher
- Don’t use indoor tanning machines
- Check your skin for changes regularly
Why do I need to protect my skin?
Protecting your skin today may help prevent skin cancer later in life. Most skin cancer appears later in life, but skin damage from the sun can start during childhood.
Taking steps to protect your skin may also help prevent:
- Blotches or spots on your skin
- Other damage to your skin and eyes
The Basics: Definition
What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the United States. There are 3 main types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are also called nonmelanoma skin cancer, and they are much more common than melanoma. Melanoma is the most dangerous of these cancers.
Skin cancer can almost always be cured when it’s found and treated early. That’s why it’s a good idea to check your skin regularly for new growths (like moles or lumps) or changes in old growths. Tell your doctor or nurse right away if you notice a change.
To learn more about skin cancer, check out:
The Basics: Am I at Risk?
What causes skin cancer?
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. UV radiation can also come from tanning beds, tanning booths, or sunlamps.
Anyone can get skin cancer. You’re at higher risk if you have:
- Fair (light-colored) skin with freckles
- Blond or red hair
- Blue or green eyes
You’re at increased risk for melanoma, one of the most dangerous types of skin cancer, if you have:
- Unusual moles (moles that change color, grow unevenly, or change in texture)
- A large number of moles (more than 50)
- A family history of melanoma or unusual moles
- Fair skin that burns easily
- A personal history of many blistering sunburns, especially when you were a child or teenager
Find out more about unusual moles and melanoma risk. And be sure to talk with your doctor or nurse if you have any concerns.
Take Action: Cover Up
Take these simple steps to help prevent skin cancer.
Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The sun’s rays are the strongest from mid-morning to late afternoon. Try to stay out of the sun during these hours. If you're outside, stay in the shade — like under a tree or umbrella.
Cover up with long sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses.
Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants or a long skirt when you spend time outdoors. Clothes made from tightly woven fabrics are best for blocking UV rays.
Wear a hat with a wide brim that protects your face and neck. Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through. If you wear a baseball cap or visor, be sure to protect your ears and the back of your neck with sunscreen.
It’s also important to wear sunglasses that block UV light. This will help protect your eyes and the skin around them from sun damage. Wrap-around sunglasses are best because they block UV rays from the side and the front.
Take Action: Use Sunscreen
Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
Use sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection, also called broad spectrum sunscreen. Check the expiration date on the bottle to make sure it’s not out of date.
To get the most protection:
- Wear sunscreen even on cloudy days — UV rays can still harm your skin when it's cloudy outside
- Put sunscreen on 30 minutes before you go outside — and put on more sunscreen every 2 hours and after you swim or sweat
- Be sure to use enough sunscreen — you’ll need about a handful to cover your body
- Remember to apply sunscreen to your ears, hands, feet, the back of your neck, and any part of your scalp that isn’t covered by hair
- Use lip balm with sunscreen in it to protect your lips
- If you wear very lightweight or loosely woven clothing (like a beach cover-up or thin T-shirt), put sunscreen on under your clothes
Take Action: Healthy Habits
Don’t use indoor tanning machines.
Tanning beds, tanning booths, and sunlamps are not any safer than tanning in the sun.
Just like tanning in the sun, indoor tanning can cause skin cancer, wrinkles, age spots, and other damage to your skin and eyes.
Check your skin regularly.
See a doctor or nurse right away if you notice:
- A new growth (like a mole or lump) on your skin
- An existing growth that has changed in size, shape, color, or feel
- A mole that bleeds or a sore that doesn’t heal
Most skin changes are harmless, but only a doctor or nurse can tell you for sure. Learn more about checking your skin for cancer.
Content last updated March 24, 2021
This information on protecting your skin from the sun was adapted from materials from the National Cancer Institute, the Office on Women’s Health, and NIHSeniorHealth.gov.
Rebecca Chasan, Ph.D.
Chief, Science Writing and Review Branch
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health