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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:
Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer.
Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, with more than 434,000 people treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia each year. Non-melanoma skin cancer is more common in men, with almost double the incidence compared to women.
Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer,* melanoma is the third most common cancer in both Australian women and men, and the most common cancer in Australians aged 15-44 years. In 2011, 11,570 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma.
Every year, in Australia:
- 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.
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).
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 in Australia 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 Australians referring to a ‘healthy tan’. Almost half of Australian 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 that a tan 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. More information about fake tans is available in Cancer Council's position statement on fake tans.
Solariums emit UVA and UVB radiation, both known causes of cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend solarium use for cosmetic tanning under any circumstances.
As of January 2016, commercial solariums will be banned in all states in Australia. ACT has also banned commercial solariums. There are no commercial solariums operating in the Northern Territory.
More information about solariums is available in Cancer Council's position statement on solariums.
There is currently no formal screening program for skin cancers in Australia. It is recommended that people become familiar with their skin. If you notice any changes consult your doctor.
More information about early detection is available in Cancer Council's position statement on screening and early detection of skin cancer.
You can also explore our section on how to check your skin for signs of skin cancer.
Download Cancer Council's skin cancer identification poster to help identify potential skin cancers.
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.
Cancer Council does not operate or recommend any particular skin cancer clinics or doctors.
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.
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.
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.
In 2012, 2036 people died from skin cancer in Australia, 1515 from melanoma and 521 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancers.
The five-year relative survival rate for melanoma is 90% for Australian men and 94% for Australian women.
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.
SunSmart UV alert
The SunSmart UV Alert is reported in the weather section of daily newspapers and on the Bureau of Meteorology website. It can also be view on the Cancer Council Australia website, or as a free app on mobile devices.
Issued by the Bureau when they forecast a UV Index for the day of three or above, the SunSmart UV Alert identifies times during the day when sun protection will be needed.
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. Cancer Council Australia recommends 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.
Understanding Skin Cancer, Cancer Council Australia, © 2014. Last medical review of source booklet: March 2014.
This online extract produced: 3 December 2015.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2012. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2012. Cancer series no. 74. Cat. no. CAN 70. Canberra: AIHW.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Non-melanoma skin cancer: general practice consultations, hospitalisation and mortality. Canberra, 2008.
- Staples MP, Elwood M, Burton RC, Williams JL, Marks R, Giles GG. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985. Medical Journal of Australia 2006; 184(1): 6-10.
- Armstrong BK. How sun exposure causes skin cancer: An epidemiological perspective. In: Hill D., Elwood J. M. and English D. R. (Eds). Prevention of Skin Cancer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, pp. 89-116.
- Armstrong BK, Kricker A. How much melanoma is caused by sun exposure? Melanoma Research 1993; 3(6): 395-401.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health system expenditures on cancer and other neoplasms in Australia, 2000-2001. AIHW cat.no. HWE 29. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, :Canberra, Australia 2005.
- Volkov A, Dobbinson SJ. 2010–11 National Sun Protection Survey Report 2. Australians’ sun protective behaviours and sunburn incidence on summer weekends, 2010–11 and comparison with 2003–04 and 2006-07 (unpublished). Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria:Melbourne, Australia, October 2011.
For more information
- How to check for signs of skin cancer
- Reduce your risk fact sheets
- Coping with a cancer diagnosis
- Treatment for cancer
- Skin cancer statistics and issues
- Cancer Council eLearning: Working indoors - a SunSmart balance for vitamin D and skin cancer prevention
For support and information call Cancer Council 13 11 20. This is a confidential service.
- Understanding Skin Cancer - Download (PDF)
- Understanding Melanoma - Download (PDF) or Download (epub)
- View more Cancer Booklets including information on surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Includes additional information on treatment, making decisions around treatment and managing side effects of skin cancer treatment.
Also included, detailed information on looking after yourself during and after treatment, and links to both professional and community support.
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This page was last updated on: Friday, January 29, 2016