About types of skin cancer

The different types of skin cancer are named after the type of skin cell they start from. There are three main types of skin cancer:

  • basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
  • squamous cell carcinoma of the skin (SCC)
  • melanoma.

BCCs and SCCs are different from melanoma. They are called non-melanoma skin cancers.

We have separate information about melanoma.

The skin and skin cells

The skin does many things. It:

  • protects the body from injury and infection
  • helps to control body temperature
  • helps to control fluid loss
  • gets rid of waste substances through the sweat glands.

The skin is divided into 2 main layers. The outer layer is the epidermis and the layer underneath is the dermis. Below these is a deeper layer of fatty tissue.

The epidermis contains several types of cells. Most of the epidermis is filled with cells called keratinocytes, also called squamous cells.

The lowest layer of the epidermis is called the basal layer. It contains rounder cells called basal cells.

The basal layer also contains skin cells called melanocytes which produce melanin. Melanin gives skin its natural colour.

Structure of the skin
Image: Structure of the skin

 

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer. About 80 in 100 (80%) of skin cancers diagnosed in the UK are BCCs. It starts in the basal cells in the bottom (basal) layer of the epidermis. BCCs are sometimes called rodent ulcers.

Most BCCs are very slow-growing and very rarely spread to other parts of the body. Nearly everyone with a BCC who has treatment is cured.

A small number of BCCs may come back in the same area after treatment (local recurrence). Occasionally, BCCs grow more quickly. If left untreated they may spread more deeply into the skin and sometimes to the bones.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin is sometimes called cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (CSCC). It is the second most common type of skin cancer in the UK. It develops from the squamous cells, which are in the outer layer of the skin. 

Most people treated for SCC of the skin are completely cured. Usually, SCCs are slow-growing skin cancers. If left untreated for a long time they may spread to other parts of the body. Sometimes they can grow more quickly and spread at an earlier stage.

Bowen's disease

Bowen’s disease is a very early form of slow-growing skin cancer. It is sometimes called squamous cell carcinoma in situ. There are cancerous cells in the very outer layer of the skin. They grow very slowly and are unlikely to cause a problem in most people.

Bowen’s disease is easily treated. Without treatment very occasionally it may develop into squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. We have more information about Bowen’s disease.

Melanoma

Melanoma develops from the melanocytes. It is a less common type of skin cancer. We have separate information about melanoma.

Rarer types of non-melanoma skin cancer

There are some other rare types of skin cancer:

Less than 1 in 100 (1%) of all skin cancers in the UK are these rarer types of skin cancer.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our skin cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) NICE pathways: Skin Cancer Treatment overview. (updated 2020) 

    Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Sunlight exposure: risks and benefits. NICE guideline [NG34] Published:2016.

    British Journal of Dermatology. British Association of Dermatologists guidelines for the management of people with cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. 2020.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Cemiplimab for treating metastatic or locally advanced cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma [TA592] Published: 07 August 2019. 

    BMJ Best Practice. Overview of Skin Cancer. (updated 2019)

    British Association of Dermatologists. Service Guidance and Standards for Mohs Micrographic Surgery (MMS). 2020.


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Samra Turajlic, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.