8 Surprising Factors That Increase Skin Cancer Risk

Skin changes are quite frequent for people undergoing cancer treatment, but some changes are more hazardous than others. People living with cancer have a higher risk of developing basal cell carcinoma because their skin cells are more sensitive to UV radiation, a known human carcinogen. Sun exposure, a primary source of UV radiation, is the biggest risk factor causing 65 percent of melanomas and 90 percent of other types of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma.

According to the American Cancer Society, many factors influence the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, including age, skin type, medication, and even diet. In this article, we discuss the eight factors that may increase your risk of developing skin cancer, how to minimize them and the importance of early detection.

Here are eight factors that may increase your skin cancer risk:

Skin Type

Some people are physically more sensitive to the sun than others. Different skin types fall into what we call the “Fitzpatrick Scale.” The Fitzpatrick Scale classifies the common types of skin and predicts how each will respond to UV exposure. Different skin types burn more easily, like Type I and II, but all skin types can be susceptible to skin cancer when overexposed to UV rays. 


When undergoing cancer therapy, your skin type informs what kind of Sun Protection Factor (SPF) you need to use and how often you should reapply. Make sure to use fragrance-free, hypoallergenic sunscreen (that won’t irritate your skin) with either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that offers both UVA and UVB (“Broad Spectrum”) protection. 

UV Index

The UV index categorizes the strength of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, from 1 (low) to 11 (extremely high) on any given day. As the score increases, so does your need for protection. There are multiple resources available to detect the intensity of UV, including wearable UV protectors and the public UV Index by the National Weather Service and the US Environmental Protection Agency. You can check the UV Index at the same time as the weather forecast.

Sun Exposure

Many people living with cancer know to apply sunscreen before spending time outside, especially near bodies of water, which intensify the sun’s damaging UV rays. After checking the UV Index for your area, dress accordingly and apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside.

To cover all exposed parts of the body, the recommended application is about one ounce (35 milliliters)—the amount in a shot glass or the size of a golf ball.

Reapply every few hours to avoid sunburn and consider wearing protective clothing like hats and long-sleeves with a high Ultraviolet Protective Factor or UPF. If you don’t want to buy clothes with UPF, you can purchase special detergent that adds UPF to your clothes while washing.


Some medications, including chemotherapy and radiation, will make your skin more sensitive to sunlight and can even cause a rash or burn. Specific anti-cancer medications known to increase photosensitivity include all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA), bexarotene, capecitabine, cetuximab, dacarbazine, dasatinib, erlotinib, fluorouracil, gefitinib, imatinib, leuprolide, methotrexate, nilotinib, paclitaxel, panitumumab, vandetanib, and vemurafenib

Anti-cancer treatments aren’t the only drugs that make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. Many medicines make the skin prone to burns, including some antibiotics, antifungals, anti-malarial drugs, anti-pain & anti-inflammatories, diabetic and gastric medication, psychiatric medication, and even some vitamins like St. John’s wort and pyridoxine. Talk with your pharmacist and oncology team about your medication list and possible photosensitive side effects.


Though it may be surprising, your diet can play a role in how sensitive your skin can be to sunlight. Foods like figs, dill, parsley, parsnips, carrots, lime, and celery may increase the likelihood of sunburn. You may want to limit these foods in your diet or be sure to wear additional protection after eating. 

Your diet is an excellent place to add vitamin D that you would otherwise get from being in the sun. Foods like cod liver oil, salmon, tuna, orange juice, or milk fortified with vitamin D, beef liver, and eggs are all excellent sources of vitamin D, which your body needs to absorb calcium and promote healthy bone growth. 

Age and Sex

Melanoma and other skin cancers tend to affect the sexes differently as they get older. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, men over 50 develop significantly more melanoma than women in that age group, whereas women under 50 tend to develop melanoma more than men under 50. However, the majority of people who develop melanoma are caucasian men over 54.

Medical History

Both family history and personal history can increase your likelihood of skin cancer. Around 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society, and this can be due to shared genetics or similar sun exposure habits. 

Suppressed immune systems, like those of people treated for cancer, are also more likely to develop skin cancer. For example, childhood cancer survivors have a skin cancer risk six times higher than the general population. The risk is higher for those who have received radiation and that risk will continue to increase years after the initial cancer treatment. Skin cancers are also more frequent in people who received allogeneic stem cell transplants. Melanoma survivors—a type of skin cancer—are at higher risk for other skin cancers (even for another melanoma) later in life.

Early Detection and Treatment

Skin changes are common in people undergoing cancer therapy. Sensitivity, rashes, and itching are some examples of typical cancer side effects. Other side effects can be more life-threatening, like an increased risk of abnormal cell development in the skin. Many factors can influence your risk of skin cancer, including medication, diet, and age. Early detection is critical for skin cancer survival. Protect and regularly check your skin for changes—even in areas not exposed to sunlight. 

At Oncoderm, our health care team is here to help you minimize the side effects of cancer therapy, and that includes sun sensitivity.  We are not only focused on cancer survival rates—we are focused on the quality of life during and after treatment. If you have any questions about your medication or need more resources for skincare, we’re here and ready to help.

Frequently asked questions:

  • What does skin cancer look like? 
  • Does skin cancer itch? 
  • Can you die from skin cancer?

Relevant for:

breast cancer, breast cancer treatment, lung cancer, prostate cancer


May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which means our team at Oncoderm is focusing on providing resources for people living with cancer and their loved ones, including sun protection, melanoma screening, and guidance. Have specific questions? Connect with our support staff 24/7 by email or chat.