What type of skin cancer develops on the ear?

Ear cancer is rare and usually begins with skin cancer in the outer ear, ear canal, or the skin around the ear. If left untreated, skin cancer on the ear can spread to the inner ear, as well as the temporal bone, facial nerve, and more. Early treatment is important, and the first sign of ear cancer is usually an abnormal growth of the outer ear. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancers that develop on or around the ear.

anatomy of the ear

Types of Ear Skin Cancer

The two most common types of skin cancer in the ear are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is also possible, but much rarer.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer and the second most common skin cancer on the ear. Basal cell carcinoma starts in the basal cells, which are located in the top layer of the skin. These types of growth usually grow slowly and rarely spread to their main site. However, if left untreated, the tumor can spread to the temporal bone, inner ear, and surrounding areas. Most cases are caught early and can be eliminated completely.

squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, but also the most common type of skin cancer on the ear. Squamous cell skin cancer of the ear remains rare, accounting for only 0.2% of all face and neck cancer diagnoses. This happens when the squamous cells on the skin around the ear become damaged and start to grow at an uncontrolled rate. Squamous cell skin cancer is more serious than basal cell carcinoma because of its ability to spread.


Ear melanoma is rare and the diagnosis is much more serious than basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is more likely to spread to the tissues around the face, making it more dangerous than other types of skin cancer. Melanoma starts in cells called melanocytes; they make pigment in the skin. Although serious, melanoma is often curable when detected early. The five-year survival rate at early capture is 99 percent.

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signs and symptoms

Ear cancer almost always starts with skin cancer. Early signs include skin scales around the ear or tiny white bumps on the outer ear. If left untreated, the cancer can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious symptoms such as hearing loss, ear pain, and ear bleeding or drainage. Facial weakness and paralysis may also occur once the cancer has spread. The most common signs of squamous cell carcinoma on or in the ear are ear pain and discharge. Hearing loss may also be noticed.

Basal cell carcinomas usually appear as open sores, pink growths, red patches, or shiny bumps. About half of people with darker skin have pigmented lesions that are brown or black. Growths may bleed or ooze over time. Sores that never seem to heal can also be a sign of basal cell carcinoma.​​​​

Squamous cell carcinoma growths often look like scaly skin and open lesions. The plaques are usually rough and thickened; they may look like warts. Open sores may bleed and scab over and never fully heal.

Melanoma usually appears as a mole-like brown or black growth. These growths usually have irregular shapes with no well-defined boundaries. Most start out as tan, brown or black and turn red, white or blue as it grows and spreads. Growth can change over time, so it’s important to keep an eye out for any new moles or marks that appear on your ears.

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Don’t ignore scaly skin

The most common type of ear skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, usually appears as dry, scaly skin patches. The skin may feel rough and thick compared to the skin around the ear.

These growths are different from dry or sensitive skin because they cannot be improved with moisturizers and can sometimes be painful. They often scab and bleed or ooze and never fully heal. Skin cancer lesions may also appear as new scars that are not injured.

Precancerous lesions called actinic keratosis also appear as red, scaly patches of skin. It usually appears on sunlit areas of the face, such as the ears. Treating these growths early can prevent them from turning into cancer.

risk factor

Ear cancer is rare, so most people with risk factors will never develop it. However, it is helpful to know the risk factors in order to be aware of any abnormal skin growths around the ears. The most common risk factor is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.

Chronic otorrhea (ear drainage) and cholesteatoma (abnormal noncancerous skin growth) in the external auditory canal and middle ear are also associated risk factors. Ear cancer is also common in people with chronic otitis media (ear infection).

Other risk factors include:

  • White skin
  • elderly
  • male
  • exposure to arsenic and other chemicals
  • radiation exposure
  • previous skin cancer, especially of the face
  • chronic skin inflammation
  • Light Therapy for Psoriasis
  • weakened immune system
  • Human papillomavirus infection
  • smokes

What is the treatment for ear skin cancer?

The most common treatment for ear cancer is surgery to completely remove the growth. If caught early, your dermatologist may remove it using one of the following options:

  • resection
  • curettage and electrodrying
  • Mohs surgery

If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissue, more invasive surgery may be necessary. Radiation therapy is usually needed after surgery to make sure all cancer cells have been removed; radiation therapy usually lasts about six weeks.

Your surgeon and oncologist will determine how much tissue to remove based on how advanced your cancer is. Soft tissue flaps are used to help the wound heal when part or all of the outer ear is removed. A plastic surgeon may be needed to help with reconstruction. Other types of surgery include removal of the ear canal and eardrum or surrounding lymph nodes if needed. Hearing aids and cochlear implants can be used to manage hearing loss after surgery.

Depending on the type of cancer, your oncologist may prescribe Keytruda (pembrolizumab) if surgery or radiation cannot be cured.


The best way to prevent skin cancer in your ears (or anywhere on your body) is to avoid and protect yourself from harmful UV rays from the sun or tanning beds. When spending time outdoors, be mindful of how you care for your skin. Rest often indoors or in the shade. Wear protective clothing, especially a hat that protects your ears from the sun. When applying sunscreen, be careful not to apply it to the skin on and around the ears. These places are often forgotten and can put you at a higher risk of skin cancer. Look for sunscreen with at least SPF 30 or higher and reapply frequently.

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To catch ear cancer as soon as possible, monitor your outer ear and surrounding skin for changes, such as dryness, scaly patches, or sores that never seem to heal. Bleeding or discharge from the ear is also a warning sign. An annual skin exam with a dermatologist can also help you spot early signs of cancer and treat it right away.

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VigorTip words

Ear cancer is rare, so it’s possible to ignore or ignore it. Squamous cell carcinoma of the ear is often misdiagnosed. Symptoms such as pain and discharge can be mistaken for an ear infection and treated with antibiotic drops, delaying necessary treatment and worsening prognosis. Notice any growths on or around the ears and watch them change. If your skin develops scaly patches, new growths, or bleeding, don’t hesitate to see your healthcare provider. Although ear cancer is very rare, it is treatable if detected early.