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Superficial basal cell carcinoma
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Superficial basal cell carcinoma

Contributors: Yevgeniy Balagula MD, Susan Burgin MD, Gaurav Singh MD, MPH, William M. Lin MD, Sarah Hocker DO, Belinda Tan MD, PhD
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed


Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common cancer in humans and the most common cancer of the skin. Two million Americans are diagnosed with BCC every year. It is a neoplasm of basal keratinocytes that is found more frequently in men than women. Rates of BCC have been increasing over the last several decades, particularly in young women. BCCs can be seen at almost any age. Nonetheless, the malignancy has greater incidence in older individuals, with a median age at diagnosis of 68 years.

There are many subtypes of BCC, including nodular, superficial, infundibulocystic, fibroepithelial, morpheaform (sclerosing, desmoplastic), infiltrative, micronodular, and basosquamous. Superficial BCCs typically occur at a younger age than other types of BCC (with a median age of 57 years at diagnosis) and are most commonly found on the trunk and extremities. They account for up to 30% of all BCCs and are the second most common subtype. In Black and Hispanic patients, BCCs are more commonly of the nodular subtype and are more often pigmented. Superficial BCCs typically grow horizontally but can become invasive. This horizontal spread is often not detected clinically, and superficial BCCs have a higher recurrence rate with surgical treatment.

The greatest risk factor contributing to the development of BCCs is sun exposure, and people with light skin phototypes are at higher risk. Intermittent sun exposure is more closely associated with the development of BCCs than cumulative ultraviolet (UV) exposure. Other risk factors for BCCs include environmental exposure (ie, ionizing radiation, indoor tanning, chemicals such as arsenic, psoralen plus UVA, and coal tar), phenotype (freckling, red hair, light skin that always burns and never tans), immunosuppression such as organ transplantation (which results in a 5-10 times higher risk of BCCs than the general population), and various genetic syndromes including xeroderma pigmentosum, oculocutaneous albinism, Muir-Torre syndrome, basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome), Rombo syndrome, and Bazex-Dupré-Christol syndrome. The gene most frequently altered in BCCs is the PTCH1 gene, followed by the TP53 gene.

Although BCCs are almost never fatal, local tissue destruction and disfiguration occur. The metastasis rate of BCCs is approximately 1 in 35 000. Metastasis is rare and typically occurs through perineural spread, lymph node metastasis, and then lung / bone metastasis.


C44.91 – Basal cell carcinoma of skin, unspecified

403914000 – Superficial basal cell carcinoma

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Last Reviewed:08/11/2021
Last Updated:01/29/2023
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Patient Information for Superficial basal cell carcinoma
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Contributors: Medical staff writer


Basal cell carcinoma (BCC), also known as basal cell epithelioma, is the most common form of skin cancer. BCC usually occurs on sun-damaged skin, especially in light-skinned individuals with a long history of chronic sun exposure. Although it requires treatment to prevent it from becoming too invasive, BCC does not typically spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

There are several subtypes of BCC, including:
  • Nodular BCC
  • Infiltrating BCC
  • Superficial BCC
Superficial BCCs are very common and are typically seen as a single pink spot.

Who’s At Risk

Although anyone of any ethnic background or any age can develop BCC, the most people with this type of skin cancer are white and middle-aged or elderly. In fact, more than 99% of people with BCC are white, and more than 95% are between the ages of 40 and 80. Men and women seem to get BCC at equal rates.

Sun exposure also can cause BCC. People who live in sunnier areas or who spend time outdoors because of work or hobbies are more likely to develop BCC.

Signs & Symptoms

The most common location for BCC is on sun-damaged skin, especially the following areas:
  • Face
  • Head
  • Neck
  • Chest
  • Upper back
However, BCCs can occur on any part of the skin, although they usually do not occur on the palms and soles.

Superficial BCCs often look like pink or red dry, scaly spots. They slowly grow and may develop a raised edge. Often, people mistake a superficial BCC as a dry patch of skin or a non-itching rash that will not go away. This type of BCC is most often found on the trunk (chest or upper back), arms, or legs.

Self-Care Guidelines

Preventing sun damage is important to avoid the development of a BCC. Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and wearing big hats and long-sleeved shirts can help prevent some sun exposure. In addition, staying out of the sun in the middle of the day (between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM) can be helpful.

If you think that you may have a BCC, you should see your primary care provider or a dermatologist as soon as possible. There are no effective self-care treatment options.

Once a month, you should do a self-exam to look for signs of skin cancer. It is best to do the exam in a well-lit area after a shower or bath. Use a full-length mirror and a hand mirror when necessary. Using a hair dryer can help you look at any areas of skin covered by hair, such as your scalp.
  • In front of a full-length mirror, look at the front of your body making sure to examine the front of your neck, chest (including under breasts), legs, and genitals.
  • With your arms raised, look at both sides of your body making sure to look at your underarms.
  • With your elbows bent, look at the front and back of your arms as well as your elbows, hands, fingers, areas between your fingers, and fingernails.
  • Look at the tops and bottoms of your feet, the areas between your toes, and toenails.
  • With your back to the mirror and holding a hand mirror, look at the back of your body, including the back of your neck, shoulders, legs, and buttocks.
  • Using a hand mirror, look at your scalp and face.
As you do your monthly self-exam, get to know yourself by noting the moles, freckles, and other marks on your body, and look for any changes in them from month to month, including shape, size, color, or other changes, such as bleeding or itching.

When to Seek Medical Care

If you have developed a new bump on sun-exposed skin, or if you have a spot that bleeds easily or does not seem to be healing, then you should make an appointment with your primary care physician or with a dermatologist.

Try to remember to tell your doctor when you first noticed the spot and what symptoms, if any, it may have (such as easy bleeding or itching). Also, be sure to ask your parents, siblings, and adult children whether they have ever been diagnosed with a skin cancer, and tell this information to your physician.


If your physician thinks you have a BCC, he or she will want to make sure they have the correct diagnosis by doing a biopsy of the spot. The procedure involves:
  1. Numbing the skin with an injectable anesthetic (numbing medicine or procaine hydrochloride [Novocain]).
  2. Sampling a small piece of skin by using a flexible razor blade, a scalpel, or a tiny cookie cutter (called a "punch biopsy"). If a punch biopsy is taken, stitches (sutures) may be placed and will need to be removed 6-14 days later.
  3. Having the skin sample tested under the microscope by a specially trained physician (dermatopathologist).
Treatment of a BCC depends on many things, including the subtype of BCC, its size, its location on the face or body, and the general health of the patient.

Superficial BCCs:
Superficial BCCs tend to be slow-growing and very thin. Therefore, they do not necessarily need the more aggressive forms of treatment. In fact, some superficial BCCs may be treated without surgery.
  • Cryosurgery with liquid nitrogen – Very cold liquid nitrogen is sprayed on the BCC, freezing it and destroying it in the process. This technique is not used very often anymore.
  • Electrodesiccation and curettage, also known as "scrape and burn" – After numbing the lesion, the doctor uses a curette to "scrape" the skin cancer cells away, followed by an electric needle to "burn," or cauterize, the tissue. The cauterizing helps to kill the cancer cells and also to stop any bleeding of the site.
  • Radiation treatment – X-ray therapy is often useful for patients who are not good surgical candidates because of other health issues.
  • Imiquimod – This cream encourages the body's immune system to attack and destroy the superficial BCC. It is usually applied several times per week for 6-12 weeks.
  • Photodynamic therapy – In this technique, a photosensitizing chemical is applied to the superficial BCC. After some time the superficial BCC is exposed to a particular type of light in the physician's office. The special light activates the chemical, causing destruction of the superficial BCC.
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Superficial basal cell carcinoma
A medical illustration showing key findings of Superficial basal cell carcinoma : Fine scaly plaque
Clinical image of Superficial basal cell carcinoma - imageId=75190. Click to open in gallery.  caption: 'A close-up of a deep pink plaque with some overlying scale.'
A close-up of a deep pink plaque with some overlying scale.
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