Merkel Cell Carcinoma

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What is My Risk for Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

These are the risk factors for Merkel cell carcinoma, an uncommon skin cancer:

  • Sun exposure.
  • Fair skin.
  • A weakened immune system
  • Age

It is very unusual for family members related by blood to get Merkel cell carcinoma.

Sun Exposure

Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the major risk factor for skin cancer. Some Merkel cell carcinomas are caused by sun exposure, especially in sun-exposed areas like the head and neck. The radiation reaches you by invisible rays from the sun. The 2 kinds of UV radiation are UVB and UVA.

UVB radiation causes sunburns and blistering. Scientists think UVB causes most skin cancers. Merkel cell carcinoma most often starts in people who were exposed to UVB radiation, especially if they had sunburns or blistering. People who work outside, spend time at the beach, or do outdoor sports have a higher risk for skin cancer.

UVA radiation also causes skin damage. UVA rays can travel through glass and clouds. Exposure to UVA rays can lead to early aging and skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Sun lamps and tanning beds also cause exposure to harmful UVA rays. You should avoid them.

Fair Skin

You’re at higher risk of getting skin cancer, including Merkel cell carcinoma, if you have any of these:

  • Fair skin.
  • Blue or light-colored eyes.
  • Blond or red hair.

People with fair skin have less melanin, a skin pigment. Melanin gives skin, hair, and eyes their color. It also gives some natural protection from the sun. People with dark skin can get Merkel cell carcinoma, but this is very rare. Skin that freckles or sunburns easily can be a warning sign you’re at risk for Merkel cell carcinoma.

Weakened Immune System

People with a weakened immune system are at higher risk for basal cell carcinoma. This includes people who have HIV, lymphoma, or leukemia. It also includes people who are getting chemotherapy, or drugs to prevent organ transplant rejection.


Merkel cell carcinoma is more common as you get older. More than half of people with this cancer are diagnosed after age 70.

Skin Cancer Prevention

The best way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to avoid ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun’s rays. We recommend you:

  • Wear protective clothing such as long-sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses.
  • Protect yourself from sun rays by wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen. Broad spectrum means it blocks both types of UV rays (UVA and UVB). 
  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher 30 minutes before going outside. Do this even on cloudy days and in the winter.
  • Apply a thick layer of sunscreen, about 2 tablespoons, on your face and body.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming, toweling, or sweating.
  • Stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when rays are the strongest.
  • Get into the shade whenever possible.
  • Do not use indoor tanning machines.