How to Identify Common Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is a broad classification that covers multiple conditions that affect the cells of the skin. The signs and causes associated with each cancer vary. Knowing how to detect a possible skin cancer lesion is important, and knowing the range of symptoms can help you stay vigilant about your skin health.

Here is a summary of the different types of skin cancer, as well as the causes and symptoms:


Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects melanocytes, the cells of the skin that produce pigment. Melanomas are the skin cancers that are most likely to spread to other areas of the body. Melanoma can form on any skin surface, but sun exposure is still one of the biggest risk factors. The presence of many moles, especially irregularly shaped moles, is also associated with a higher risk of melanomas.

There are actually four different types of melanoma.

  1. Superficial spreading melanoma is the most common melanoma cancer, and it spreads along the outermost layer of skin before it penetrates the deeper layers. This type of melanoma begins as an asymmetrical area of discolored skin that is usually flat or slightly elevated. This cancer tends to affect young people.
  2. Lentigo maligna is similar to superficial spreading melanoma in development and appearance. Unlike superficial spreading melanoma, lentigo maligna is more likely to occur in the elderly.
  3. Acral lentiginous melanoma spreads along the top layer of skin before penetrating to deeper layers. Signs of this melanoma include dark black or brown lesions that typically occur under the nails, on the palms, and on the bottom of the feet. This melanoma tends to be more aggressive than superficial spreading melanoma or lentigo maligna.
  4. Nodular melanoma, unlike the other three melanomas, develops as an invasive melanoma. This cancer is usually identified by the development of a bump that may be discolored.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most commonly diagnosed type of skin cancer. This is also the most common type of skin cancer in individuals with fair skin, but it important to note that basal cell carcinoma is not exclusive to people with fair skin. With treatment, basal cell carcinoma is the least deadly skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma rarely spreads to other areas of the body, and the cancer tends to develop and grow slowly. Most cases of this cancer develop on skin that is exposed to the sun, and the face is the most common location for lesions. This cancer tends to develop as a large dome-shaped lesion. Small blood vessels might be visible under the surface of the lesion. Some people mistake the basal cell carcinoma for a benign mole, so it is important to bring any newly discovered skin changes to the attention of your physician.

Researchers suggest that basal cell carcinoma is more likely to develop due to intermittent and intense periods of sun exposure rather than prolonged and regular sun exposure. People who live in areas with high levels of UV radiation are also more likely to develop this cancer. This cancer is also more likely to occur in people over the age of 50 and individuals who have received radiation treatment for other cancers.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer type. The cancer begins in cells known as keratinocytes and most commonly occurs on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun. This cancer can spread to other areas of the body.

This cancer typically presents as a red patch of thickened skin that can become scaly. Cancer sites can develop ulcers and bleeding. If left untreated, this cancer can grow into a large mass.

Sun exposure is the primary cause associated with squamous cell carcinoma. Unlike basal cell carcinoma, this cancer is caused by prolonged sun exposure, but lesions might not appear for years after the dangerous sun exposure has occurred. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer type for organ transplant recipients. Scar tissue is another possible cause. Some strains of HPV are associated with the development of lesions around the anus and genitals.

Other skin cancers do exist, but these conditions are very rare. It is very important to monitor any sign of skin abnormality and report these occurrences to your physician.