Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
There are three main types of skin cancer:
- basal cell carcinoma
- squamous cell carcinoma
- melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer
Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer.
Non-melanoma skin cancer is more common in men, with almost double the incidence compared to women:
- skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers
- between 95 and 99% of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun
- GPs have over 1 million patient consultations per year for skin cancer
- the incidence of skin cancer is one of the highest in the world, two to three times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK.
*Non-melanoma skin cancers are not notified to cancer registries.
Skin cancer symptoms
The sooner a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better your chance of avoiding surgery or, in the case of a serious melanoma or other skin cancer, potential disfigurement or even death.
It is also a good idea to talk to your doctor about your level of risk and for advice on early detection.
Become familiar with the look of your skin, so you pick up any changes that might suggest a skin cancer. Look for:
- any crusty, non-healing sores
- small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour
- new spots, freckles or any moles changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of weeks to months (especially those dark brown to black, red or blue-black in colour).
Causes of skin cancer
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Anyone can be at risk of developing skin cancer, though the risk increases as you get older.
The majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight.
Sunburn causes 95% of melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
In Australia, almost 14% of adults, 24% of teenagers and 8% of children are sunburnt on an average summer weekend. Many people get sunburnt when they are taking part in water sports and activities at the beach or a pool, as well gardening or having a barbeque.
Sunburn is also common on cooler or overcast days, as many people mistakenly believe UV radiation is not as strong. This is untrue – you can still be sunburnt when the temperature is cool.
Sun exposure that doesn't result in burning can still cause damage to skin cells and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Evidence suggests that regular exposure to UV radiation year after year can also lead to skin cancer.
A tan is not a sign of good health or wellbeing, despite many referring to a ‘healthy tan’. Almost half of adults still hold the misguided belief that a tan looks healthy.
Tanning is a sign that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation (from the sun or solarium) to damage your skin. This will eventually cause loss of elasticity (wrinkles), sagging, yellowish discolouration and even brown patches to appear on your skin. Worst of all, it increases your risk of skin cancer.
A tan will offer limited protection from sunburn, but usually equivalent to SPF3, depending on your skin type. It does not protect from DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer.
Some people who use fake tans mistakenly believe it will provide them with protection against UV radiation. As a result, they may not take sun protection measures, putting them at greater risk of skin cancer.
Solariums emit UVA and UVB radiation, both known causes of cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend solarium use for cosmetic tanning under any circumstances.
Screening for skin cancer
There is currently no formal screening program for skin cancers. It is recommended that people become familiar with their skin. If you notice any changes consult your doctor.
You can also explore our section on how to check your skin for signs of skin cancer.
Skin cancer clinics
Usually operated by GPs, skin cancer clinics can offer a variety of services. Some clinics are run by dermatologists.
Skin cancer clinics may not offer higher levels of expertise than your GP, so it is important to look into what services are offered and the training of the staff.
When choosing a skin cancer clinic consider:
- staff – qualifications and experience
- diagnosis and services offered
- follow-up provided.
Diagnosis for skin cancer
It is important to check your skin regularly and check with your doctor if you notice any changes.
Your doctor may perform a biopsy (remove a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope) or refer you to a specialist if he/she suspects a skin cancer.
Treatment for skin cancer
Skin cancers are almost always removed. In more advanced skin cancers, some of the surrounding tissue may also be removed to make sure that all of the cancerous cells have been taken out.
Common skin cancers can be treated with ointments or radiation therapy. They can also be removed with surgery (usually under a local anaesthetic), cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen to rapidly freeze the cancer off), curettage (scraping) or cautery (burning).
For more detailed information about skin cancer please phone Cancer Council 13 11 20 or talk to your GP.
Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of medical staff, such as:
- General Practitioner
- dermatologist – a doctor who specialises in preventing, diagnosing and treating skin diseases
- plastic surgeon – trained in complex constructive techniques, including surgery if the cancer has spread.
Prognosis for skin cancer
It is not possible for a doctor to predict the exact course of a disease. However, your doctor may give you the likely outcome of the disease. If detected early, most skin cancers are successfully treated.
Preventing skin cancer
Protect your skin
For best protection, we recommend a combination of sun protection measures:
- Slip on some sun-protective clothing – that covers as much skin as possible
- Slop on broad spectrum, water resistant SPF30+ sunscreen. Put it on 20 minutes before you go outdoors and every two hours afterwards. Sunscreen should never be used to extend the time you spend in the sun.
- Slap on a hat – that protects your face, head, neck and ears
- Seek shade
- Slide on some sunglasses – make sure they meet Australian standards.
Be extra cautious in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
For further information please read our position statement on eye protection.
Apply sunscreen liberally – at least a teaspoon for each limb, front and back of the body and half a teaspoon for the face, neck and ears. Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen resulting in only 50-80% of the protection stated on the product.
Sun protection and babies
Evidence suggests that childhood sun exposure contributes significantly to your lifetime risk of skin cancer. Recommend keeping babies out of the sun as much as possible for the first 12 months.
Where this is not possible, parents and carers should minimise exposure by:
- Planning the day’s activities outside the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
- Covering as much skin as possible with loose fitting clothes and wraps made from closely woven fabrics.
- Choosing a hat that protects the baby’s face, neck and ears.
- Making use of available shade or create shade for the pram, stroller or play area. The material should cast a dark shadow. The baby will still need to be protected from scattered and reflected UV radiation.
- Keeping an eye on the baby’s clothing, hat and shade to ensure they continue to be well-protected.
- Applying a broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen to small areas of the skin that cannot be protected by clothing, such as the face, ears, neck and hands, remembering to reapply the sunscreen every two hours or more often it is wiped or washed off.
There is no evidence that using sunscreen on babies is harmful, although some babies may develop minor skin irritation. Try sunscreen milks or creams for sensitive skin which are less likely to irritate the skin. As with all products, use of any sunscreen should cease if any unusual reaction occurs.