Skin Cancer Health Center

Cancer always starts in the cells, which make up the tissue that is found in the skin and throughout the body. Cells have a life of their own – they grow and mature and eventually die off, at which point they’re replaced. Sometimes, though, something goes haywire – new cells might form even though the body doesn’t need them, and sometimes old or damaged cells don’t die off as they’re supposed to. When this happens, cells start growing wild. All the extra cells build up and form a mass of some sort that’s called a lump, growth a tumor.

Skin cancers are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous). The three most common types of skin cancer are:


  • Melanoma begins in melanocytes (pigment cells), and it can develop on any skin surface.
  • In men, it's often found on the head, neck, or between the shoulders and the hips.
  • Women often have melanoma on lower legs or between the shoulders and the hips.
  • Melanoma is rare in people with dark skin. When it does develop in dark-skinned people, it's usually found under the fingernails, under the toenails, on the palms of the hands or on the soles of the feet.

Basal cell skin cancer.

  • Basal cell skin cancer begins in the basal cell (top) layer of the skin.
  • It usually occurs in places that have been in the sun. So the face is the most common place to find basal cell skin cancer.
  • In people with fair skin, basal cell skin cancer is the most common type of skin cancer.

Squamous cell skin cancer.

  • Squamous cell skin cancer begins in squamous cells that are also in the top (epidermis) layer of skin.
  • This is the most common type of skin cancer found in people with dark skin, and it’s usually found in places that are not in the sun, such as the legs or feet.

However, for people with fair skin, squamous cell skin cancer usually occurs on parts of the skin that have been in the sun such as the head, face, and ears.

Review Date: 
March 28, 2012
Last Updated:
June 28, 2013