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Skin cancer types: Squamous cell carcinoma overview

Squamous cell carcinoma

What is squamous cell carcinoma?
Also called squamous cell skin cancer, this is a common type of skin cancer. It tends to develop in people who have had lots of sun exposure, use(d) tanning beds, or both. Board-certified dermatologists have expertise in diagnosing and treating this skin cancer.

Is squamous cell carcinoma contagious? No.

How does squamous cell skin cancer begin?

This cancer usually begins when ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or tanning beds badly damages the skin. The body tries to repair this damage. When it no longer can repair all the damage, changes called mutations develop in the skin’s cells. These mutated cells are cancer cells.

As these cells pile up, a cancerous tumor develops.

Is squamous cell skin cancer serious?

This cancer is usually not life-threatening. In most patients, it tends to grow slowly.

If you have a compromised immune system, this skin cancer can grow more quickly and be more aggressive. A compromised immune system may be due to taking medication to prevent rejecting a transplanted organ or having leukemia.

While this skin cancer tends to grow slowly, without treatment, it can grow deep. When the cancer grows deep, it can injure nerves, blood vessels, and anything else in its path. It can also spread to other parts of the body, which can be deadly.

Finding this skin cancer early can prevent it from growing deep into the skin.

When found early, squamous cell skin cancer is highly treatable. Once it grows deep, treatment becomes more difficult.

Anyone can develop squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer

People of all skin tones can develop squamous cell skin cancer

If you see anything on your skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way, see a board-certified dermatologist for a skin exam.

Group of diverse people shows that people of all colors can develop squamous cell skin cancer

While anyone can develop this skin cancer, people who have the greatest risk either:

  • Have a light skin tone and spent lots of time in the sun

  • Use(d) tanning beds

  • Take medication to prevent the body from rejecting a transplanted organ

While you’re more likely to develop squamous cell skin cancer if you have one of the above risk factors, anyone can develop this skin cancer. It is the most common skin cancer in Blacks and Asian Indians.

Where does squamous cell skin cancer develop?

It tends to develop on skin that’s had lots of sun exposure like the face, hands, or lips.

This skin cancer may also develop in areas that get little or no sun like the mouth, genitals, or anus. It’s believed that the cause in these areas may be an injury or HPV (human papillomavirus) infection.

Whether the cause is sunlight, tanning beds, injury, or an HPV infection, this skin cancer can show up on the skin in various ways, such as a non-healing sore or area of rough skin.

To find out what this skin cancer can look like and see pictures of it, go to: Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin: Signs and symptoms.

Getty Images

Anadolu-Brasie R, Patel AR, et al., “Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.” In: Nouri K, et al. Skin Cancer. McGraw Hill Medical, China, 2008: 86-114.

Gloster HM Jr, Neal K. “Skin cancer in skin of color.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;55(5):741-60.

Written by:
Paula Ludmann, MS

Reviewed by:
Elan M. Newman, MD, FAAD
Rajiv Nijhawan, MD, FAAD
Brittany Oliver, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 4/28/23