Can Tattoos Hide Skin Cancer? Advice From MSK on How To Stay Safe

Man putting on sunscreen

Even areas covered by tattoos need sunscreen.

First, the good news: There’s no evidence that tattoos cause skin cancer, says Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) dermatologist Jennifer DeFazio, who cares for people at the MSK Skin Cancer Center Hauppauge. A dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in skin, hair, and nails.

What to be mindful of, Dr. DeFazio says, are any moles or lesions that exist or develop within tattoos. A tattoo can mask these lesions. This could potentially delay a diagnosis of skin cancer.

Advice for Getting a Tattoo If You’re Concerned About Skin Cancer

If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, Dr. DeFazio has some advice.

“I always tell patients considering a tattoo to avoid getting it over moles, since that may make it more difficult to detect any changes,” she says.

It is important to check your skin, and if you see a new or changing lesion — including within a tattoo — see a dermatologist for evaluation.

It is also important to protect your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Remember to apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen and reapply every two hours, including over tattoos if they are exposed to the sun.

Memorial Sloan Kettering dermatologist Jennifer DeFazio

Jennifer DeFazio

What does skin cancer look like, and how can I check myself?

Whether or not you have a tattoo, Dr. DeFazio says to remember the mnemonic “ABCDE” when checking yourself for skin cancer:

  • Asymmetrical: A suspicious mole may not look the same on one side as it does the other.
  • Border: A suspicious mole can have edges that are irregular or hard to trace around.
  • Color: A suspicious mole can have different colors in it, like shades of tan, brown, black, or even white, red, or blue. It may also be very dark in color.
  • Diameter: A suspicious mole can be larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolving: A suspicious mole may change in size, shape, or color over time, or be a new lesion.

Who is at highest risk for skin cancer?

People who are at a higher risk of skin cancer/melanoma are those with:

  • Fair (light) complexion
  • Blue eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Freckles
  • A tendency to burn rather than tan
  • Many moles
  • A family history of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer
  • A personal history of skin cancer

Skin Cancer in People of Color

People of any skin color can get skin cancer. While darker skin has more melanin, which helps protect the skin from UV damage, melanoma can still develop. It’s important to know that melanoma can also develop on skin that does not get significant UV exposure, such as on the palms and soles. This is called acral melanoma. While acral melanoma is rare, it is the most common type of melanoma in people with darker skin.

In people of color, melanoma is often diagnosed at a later stage, making it harder to treat.

Skin Cancer Treatment at MSK

MSK’s state-of-the-art skin cancer center in Hauppauge, New York, offers diagnostic screenings, active surveillance for people at high risk, and treatments for all types of skin cancer, including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma.

“Our dermatology team has extensive experience in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer, utilizing diagnostic tools such as dermoscopic imaging, total body photography, and confocal imaging to improve patient care,” Dr. DeFazio says. “We are proud to offer our patients leading-edge care.”