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6 Surprising Things That Raise Your Skin Cancer Risk

Get to know all the risk factors, plus how you can stay cancer-free

By Beth Levine and

(This article previously appeared on

It's well known that skipping sunscreen, ignoring changing moles and using tanning beds can put you at higher risk for skin cancer. In fact, a recent study by the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center noted that indoor tanning can produce 10 to 15 times as much UV radiation as the midday sun. Here are six other, less publicized risk factors:

1. Using Viagra

In a study published this year in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers discovered that men who used sildenafil (Viagra, the male erectile dysfunction medication), had a 92 percent increased risk for developing melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. That does not mean that the other ED medications such as tadalafil (Cialis) and vardenafil (Levitra) do not carry the risk; it’s just that this study only looked at sildenafil. It also doesn't prove that sildenafil causes melanoma, just that it can increase the risk. If you are thinking of taking sildenafil or are currently taking it, weigh the benefits and discuss possible alternatives with your physician. And if you do use it, make sure you get yearly full body checks from a dermatologist.

(MORE: Viagra For Women?)

2. Thinking Only Fair-Skinned People are at Risk

Fair-skinned people usually know to take precautions in the sun. And if they forget, severe sunburns will soon remind them. But if you think having a darker complexion means you don’t have to be as cautious, however, think again.

“Darker skin has more and longer lasting melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color), which provides some inherent protection against UV rays, but not enough,” said Dr. Adam Friedman, director of dermatologic research in the division of dermatology at Montefiore Medical Center. “This unique biological difference means harmful effects of UV exposure occur more slowly in people of color, but UV rays are still damaging and can cause skin cancer.”

Another issue is that while more fair-skinned people do get skin cancer, darker-skinned people are at greater risk of getting late diagnoses, leading to lower survival rates. In fact, musician Bob Marley died of a toe melanoma — he thought it was a soccer injury that wasn’t healing. Always wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher + broad spectrum) and protect yourself from the sun. See a dermatologist about any spot that is changing over time in size, shape or color.

3. Where You Live

Living in the tropics is an obvious risk: The sun's rays are strongest near the Equator; there are more days of the year with strong sunlight; and you walk around in fewer clothes, exposing more of your skin. But living at higher elevations can also pose dangers. “Ultraviolet light is stronger as elevation increases, because the thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes cannot filter UV as effectively as it does at sea level,” explains Dr. Daniela Kroshinsky, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology.

(MORE: Can Sunscreen Keep Your Skin From Aging?)

4. HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

There are more than 150 strains of HPV viruses. The most well-known are sexually transmitted, and cause genital warts and increase risk of cervical cancer. But there are other types of HPV viruses that spread without sexual contact, causing non-genital warts, usually on the arms, hands, chest and feet. They are contracted through skin-to-skin contact with the wart, say if you've touched someone's hand who has touched a wart or used someone's towel who has one.

A study led by Margaret Karagas, professor of community and family medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, found that HPV skin infection heightens the risk of developing certain skin cancers such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas and is worsened if people are taking immunosuppression drugs. Talk with your doctor about getting the HPV vaccine, no matter what gender you are, and check warts often to see if there are any changes.


5. Scars from Disease and Burns

“Long-terms scars and ulcers that don’t heal are at large risk for developing skin cancer,” says Kroshinsky, who is also director of pediatric dermatology and in-patient sermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. "They can develop squamous cell carcinoma due to chronic inflammation changing the cells into malignant cells."

A healed scar is fine, unless it begins to change. Then have it checked out by a dermatologist.

6. Being a Male Over 50

When The American Academy of Dermatology conducted a skin cancer screening program, one surprising result was that the population most likely to develop skin cancer is men over the age of 50. Kroshinsky speculates that it may be due to the fact that they spend more time in the sun with their shirts off than women do.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: The 5 Foods Men Need to Eat)

Know Your Detection ABCDEs

The American Cancer Society offers the following visual skin cancer detection clues when assessing moles:


Beth Levine Read More
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