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Squamous cell carcinoma—the second most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer—shares many risk factors with other skin malignancies. A risk factor is anything that can increase a person’s chances of developing a disease.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun

Extensive UV exposure is one of the most well-established risk factors for all forms of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinomas, basal cell carcinomas and melanomas. Repeated exposure to UV rays—whether from the sun or an indoor tanning booth—can significantly damage the skin, potentially causing healthy cells to become cancerous. And, while a history of UV exposure does not necessarily mean that an individual will develop cancer, it does heighten the importance of routine skin cancer screenings. Here’s a closer look at how UV exposure impacts squamous cell carcinoma risk.

Fair skin

People of all ethnicities can get skin cancer, but individuals with fair or freckled skin are especially susceptible to sunburns, which can increase their likelihood of sustaining ultraviolet light-induced cell damage that may lead to cancer. This is because fair skin contains less melanin—a pigment that gives skin its color and provides protection from the sun.

Sun-sensitive conditions

People with an inherited condition known as xeroderma pigmentosum have an extreme sensitivity to sunlight and are also very susceptible to cellular damage caused by ultraviolet light A (UVA) and ultraviolet light B (UVB) rays. Albinism, an inherited disorder characterized by a lack of protective skin pigmentation, is another condition that can significantly increase skin cancer risk.


Males are nearly three times more likely to develop basal and squamous cell carcinomas than females, which may be partially attributed to their comparatively higher tendency to spend time outdoors without adequate sun protection. Research has also shown that men are generally less educated about skin health and preventive care strategies.


Older adults are more frequently diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma than younger adults, presumably due to the cumulative effects of UV exposure over a person’s lifetime. Still, the incidence of skin cancer is on the rise in younger people, likely because of their propensity to spend more time in tanning booths or the sun without adequate protection.

Treatment for other skin diseases

People with psoriasis, dermatitis and other inflammatory skin diseases often receive ultraviolet light-based treatments (phototherapies), which can increase their risk of developing skin cancer in the future. This treatment involves strategically exposing skin to UVB rays that are emitted from an instrument in a medical setting.

Other risk factors for squamous cell skin cancer

Too much time spent in the sun isn’t the only significant risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma. Other established risk factors for this cancer include:

  • Prolonged exposure to arsenic, coal tar or other carcinogenic chemicals
  • Chronic ulcers
  • Radiation therapy treatment for previous cancers
  • A personal or family history of skin cancer
  • A compromised immune system
  • Smoking and other forms of tobacco use
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection

It’s important to note that having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that getting skin cancer is inevitable. And, it’s still possible to develop skin cancer without having any known risk factors. That’s why taking preventive measures such as wearing sunscreen, avoiding tanning beds and limiting sun exposure is key to maintaining healthy skin and reducing cancer risk.

Learn more about risk factors and treatment options at Moffitt

To learn more about squamous cell carcinoma risk factors, or to consult with one of Moffitt Cancer Center’s expert oncologists in our Cutaneous Oncology Program regarding your own personal skin cancer risk or treatment options, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online.


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