Psoriasis vs. Skin Cancer Symptoms: 4 Differences and Photos To Compare | MyPsoriasisTeam

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Psoriasis vs. Skin Cancer Symptoms: 4 Differences and Photos To Compare

Medically reviewed by Florentina Negoi, M.D.
Written by Emily Wagner, M.S.
Posted on March 12, 2024

Have you ever taken a close look at your skin and noticed a patch of skin or lesion that just doesn’t look quite right? If you’re living with psoriasis, you may be wondering whether you’ve developed a new plaque or if it’s something more serious — like skin cancer.

In this article, we’ll cover four differences you should know between psoriasis and skin cancer. We’ll also provide answers to questions you may have about your risk of skin cancer while living with psoriasis.

Is Psoriasis Skin Cancer?

Psoriasis and skin cancer are two different skin conditions, and psoriasis is definitely not cancer.

The confusion may arise because both cause skin bumps, lesions, and rashes. However, there are some key differences between the two that can help you decide when it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist (skin specialist).

What Are Psoriasis and Skin Cancer?

Psoriasis is an immune-mediated disease caused by an overactive immune system. Normal skin cells grow and shed from your body in one month. In people with psoriasis, inflammation speeds this process up so skin cells shed every three to four days. The extra cells begin piling up on the skin’s surface, creating raised plaques and lesions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Skin cancer occurs when DNA inside your skin cells becomes damaged. This causes the skin cells to change and grow uncontrollably, leading to abnormal growths or moles. The most common cause of skin cancer is DNA damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.

Symptom Differences Between Psoriasis and Skin Cancer

While psoriasis and skin cancer lesions share many similarities in looks, they also have some key differences. The associated symptoms, locations, and sizes of your lesions can help you tell them apart. Here are four differences to know between psoriasis and skin cancer.

1. Plaque Psoriasis Is Painful and Itchy, While Skin Cancer Isn’t

Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of psoriasis. It’s characterized by raised, scaly, discolored patches of skin that are sometimes painful or itchy. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Plaque psoriasis refers to raised and scaly patches of skin that vary in color. People with lighter skin tones may notice red or brown plaques, while those with darker skin tones can develop purple or gray plaques. These lesions can have a silvery or white surface as well. Many people with plaque psoriasis say their skin can be intensely itchy and painful.

Symptoms of basal cell carcinoma, such as scaly, discolored patches of skin, can resemble those of plaque psoriasis. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is a type of skin cancer that affects the basal cells deep within the skin. These cells are responsible for making new skin cells that replace old ones as they die off. Lesions from BCC can look very similar to plaque psoriasis. Mayo Clinic states that some people with BCC develop flat, scaly patches of skin. Others may notice shiny bumps that are pink on lighter skin tones or brown/black on darker skin tones.

Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma symptoms can include large scaly or crusty lumps that grow over time. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) develops in the upper layer of skin, where skin cells are shed off to make room for new ones. SCC can also look like plaque psoriasis in some cases. Some people can have scaly, rough patches of skin that bleed and form crusts.

The key difference between plaque psoriasis and skin cancer symptoms is that skin cancer typically isn’t itchy or painful. Some people with scaly patches from BCC or SCC can experience some itching, but it’s not as common as it is in psoriasis. In fact, most people with skin cancer don’t notice any troublesome symptoms until the cancer has grown significantly. You’ll likely see a dermatologist and get treatment before it gets to that point.

2. Psoriasis and Skin Cancer Affect Different Areas of Skin

While you can develop psoriasis and skin cancer anywhere on your skin, they tend to occur in specific spots. The type of psoriasis you have will affect where your symptoms develop.

Plaque psoriasis commonly develops on parts of the body including the elbows, knees, torso, and scalp. Additionally, psoriasis lesions tend to develop in more than one region of the body. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

For example, plaque psoriasis is common on the scalp, elbows, torso, and knees. Plaques or lesions are typically symmetrical, meaning they develop in the same spot on both sides of the body. Another type of psoriasis, known as guttate psoriasis, causes the formation of small, round spots on the torso, arms, and legs.

Basal cell carcinoma (pictured here) and squamous cell carcinoma both tend to develop on areas of skin that commonly get sun exposure, including the head, face, arms, and neck. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

On the other hand, skin cancer tends to develop on areas of skin commonly exposed to the sun. BCC can be found on the head, face, arms, and neck. SCC forms more often on the ears, face, lips, neck, and back of the hands. Additionally, skin cancer generally appears in only one place on the body, while psoriasis lesions usually appear in multiple regions.

SCC typically affects people with lighter skin, but it can also occur in those with darker skin. The American Cancer Society notes that SCC in people with darker skin tones is more likely to develop in areas that aren’t usually exposed to the sun. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s important to check the toenails, feet, lower legs, buttocks, and groin for signs of skin cancer regularly.

3. Changing Moles or Growing Lesions Are a Sign of Melanoma, Not Psoriasis

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects the melanocytes in the skin. These specialized cells make melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color. While melanoma is less common than BCC and SCC, it’s the most deadly type of skin cancer.

Melanoma — the deadliest type of skin cancer — can come in various colors, including white, pink, red, blue, or black. Initially, melanoma may look like a mole or a freckle. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Melanomas can have many different appearances. Most people think of moles that have grown and changed over time. However, other signs of melanoma can include:

  • Small white, pink, red, blue, or blue-black lesions with irregular borders
  • Large, dark spots on the skin with darker speckles inside them
  • Dark lesions along your mucus membranes (mouth or nose) or on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet

4. Psoriasis Plaques Tend To Be Larger Than Skin Cancer

While psoriasis plaques and certain types of skin cancer can look similar to one another, they can also differ in size. Psoriasis can affect large areas of skin and continue spreading outward. Some people can have plaques that cover large areas of their chest or back.

Skin cancer tumors may slowly grow over time, like this melanoma tumor. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)
Skin cancer tumors, such as this squamous cell carcinoma tumor, tend to be smaller than psoriasis lesions. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

On the other hand, skin cancer lesions tend to be much smaller and don’t spread over the skin. For example, melanomas can be very small, but most are diagnosed after they grow to around the size of a pea. BCC and SCC staging (which determines how far the cancer has progressed) depends on the size of the cancer. Tumors in BCC and SCC are small compared to psoriasis lesions — usually a few centimeters across.

Answering Your Questions About Psoriasis and Skin Cancer

You may have read that people with psoriasis are more likely to develop certain types of cancer compared to those without. But does psoriasis also raise your risk of skin cancer?

A few studies have found that people living with psoriasis are more likely to develop BCC and SCC compared to the general population. Researchers believe that certain psoriasis treatments — like immunosuppressants, phototherapy, and biologics — may drive this risk. Other reports suggest that psoriasis is also associated with an increased risk of melanoma.

It’s worth noting that psoriasis itself doesn’t turn into skin cancer. Instead, increased inflammation in your skin may set the scene for cancer growth. There’s a possibility that you can develop skin cancer in the same areas of skin affected by psoriasis lesions — but these are still two separate conditions.

If you’ve noticed new signs of psoriasis or skin cancer, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor. The sooner you receive a diagnosis and start treatment, the better your outlook will be. Psoriasis symptoms can be uncomfortable, and the right treatment plan can help. It’s also important to get treatment as soon as possible for skin cancer to prevent it from spreading.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyPsoriasisTeam is the social network for people with psoriasis and their loved ones. On MyPsoriasisTeam, more than 126,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with psoriasis.

Have you been diagnosed with psoriasis and skin cancer? Were your symptoms different between the two skin conditions? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting to your Activities feed.

    Posted on March 12, 2024
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    Florentina Negoi, M.D. attended the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania, and is currently enrolled in a rheumatology training program at St. Mary Clinical Hospital. Learn more about her here.
    Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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