Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

Also known as squamous cell cancer

Squamous cell carcinomas of the skin are a type of non-melanoma skin cancer. There are other forms of squamous cell carcinoma, such as of your lung, thyroid, oesophagus and vagina. This page focuses on squamous cell carcinoma of your skin.

Key points on squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

  1. Squamous cell carcinomas of the skin often appear as a raised, crusty, non-healing sore, often on the hands, forearms, ears, face or neck of people who have spent a lot of time outdoors.
  2. They are common in people over the age of 40 years old.
  3. Most squamous cell carcinomas of the skin are caused by long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from sunlight or from tanning beds or lamps.
  4. They can be life-threatening if left untreated.
  5. Avoiding UV light helps reduce your risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin and other types of skin cancer.

What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin is a common form of non-melanoma skin cancer. It develops in the flat, thin squamous cells that make up the middle and outer layer of your skin.


What causes squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma occurs when squamous cells in the outer layer of your skin develop errors in their DNA. Ordinarily, new cells push older cells toward your skin's surface, and the older cells die and are sloughed off. DNA errors disrupt this orderly pattern, causing cells to grow out of control, resulting in squamous cell carcinoma.

The most common cause of damage to DNA in skin cells is from ultraviolet (UV) radiation found in sunlight. Other sources of UV radiation, such as commercial tanning lamps and tanning beds, can also cause damage.

Who is most at risk of developing a squamous cell carcinoma?

You are at highest risk of developing a squamous cell carcinoma if you:

  • are older
  • have pale skin and burn easily
  • have spent a lot of time outdoors for work or leisure
  • have a history of sunburns, sunbathing or using sun beds 
  • live in a sunny climate
  • have previously had a squamous cell carcinoma or other type of skin cancer
  • have a condition or take medications that affect your immune system (immune suppression).

Where do squamous cell carcinoma appear?

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin most often occurs on sun-exposed skin, such as your scalp, the backs of your hands, your ears or your lips. But it can occur anywhere on your body, including inside your mouth, on your anus and on your genitals.

What do squamous cell carcinomas look like?

Squamous cell carcinomas often appear as a raised, crusty, non-healing sore.

They may also appear as a:

  • flat sore with or without a scaly crust
  • new sore or raised area on an existing scar or ulcer
  • rough, scaly patch on your lip that may evolve to an open sore
  • red sore or rough patch inside your mouth
  • red, raised patch or wart-like sore on or in your anus or on your genitals.

What should I do if I think I have a squamous cell carcinoma?  

If you notice a change to or growth on your skin, make an appointment to see your doctor straight away. Your doctor will assess the size, location and look of the growth. They will also ask you how long you have had it and whether it bleeds or itches. 

If your doctor thinks the growth may be cancer, they may take a small sample of tissue (a biopsy). The tissue sample will be sent to a laboratory and examined under a microscope. Your doctor will let you know whether the sample shows any cancer cells or not, and will recommend appropriate treatment if necessary. 

How are squamous cell carcinomas treated?

Treatment of squamous cell carcinoma depends on its type, size and location and other factors, such as your preference. 

Options include: 

  • surgical removal of the cancer (this is the most common treatment method)
  • freezing it with liquid nitrogen
  • topical therapies (creams)
  • radiotherapy
  • photodynamic therapy (a specialist treatment using light to activate creams).

If you have a squamous cell carcinoma, talk with your doctor about which treatment option is best for you. Treatment has a high success rate, provided the skin cancer is found at an early stage. Your doctor may want to schedule a future appointment to check for new lesions. 

Read more about skin cancer treatment

How can I prevent squamous cell carcinoma from coming back? 

Most squamous cell carcinomas can be treated and cured. However, it is possible for these types of cancers to recur or for new skin cancers to appear. 

Do the following to reduce the risk of new cancers occurring:

  • Keep all follow-up appointments with your GP or skin specialist.
  • Regularly check all your skin (from head to toe). If you see anything that is growing, bleeding or in any way changing, go and see your doctor straight away. See skin checks.
  • Protect your skin from the sun and avoid indoor tanning. This is essential to prevent further damage, which will increase your risk of getting another skin cancer.

Ways to protect your skin

  • Avoid outdoor activities when the sun is strongest – between 10am and 4pm from September to April in New Zealand.
  • Wear sunscreen and lip balm daily that offer SPF 30 or higher sun protection.
  • Use sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) protection and is water resistant. 
  • Apply the sunscreen and lip balm to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors. 
  • Apply the sunscreen to every part of your body that will not be covered by clothing. Reapply it every 2 hours if you are swimming or sweating.
  • Whenever possible, wear a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants. 
  • Wear sunglasses to protect the skin around your eyes. 
  • Avoid getting a tan and never use a tanning bed or sun lamp. 

See also sun safety.

Learn more

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin DermNet NZ
Squamous cell carcinoma patient information sheet British Association of Dermatologists, 2012
Squamous cell carcinoma The Skin Cancer Foundation, US, 2015
Skin cancer information The Skin Cancer Foundation, US, 2015

Reference

  1. Motley RJ, Preston PW, Lawrence CM. Multi-professional guidelines for the management of the patient with primary cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma British Association of Dermatologists, UK, 2009  

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in Hawke’s Bay since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. She is looking forward to further study with Otago University in public health to learn about how we can reduce preventable disease and inequalities.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Hawke's Bay DHB Last reviewed: 15 Aug 2020