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.
Approximately, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, with more than 750,000 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 Australians. In 2013, 12,744 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma.
Every year, in Australia:
- skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers
- the majority 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.
In 2014, 2067 people died from skin cancer in Australia, 1467 from melanoma and 600 from non-melanoma skin cancers.
The five-year relative survival rate for melanoma is 88% for men and 93% for women in Australia.
The five-year relative survival rate for non-melanoma skin cancer is 68% for men and 74% for women in Australia.
*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, 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 5 teenagers 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 only limited protection from sunburn, 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. 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 were 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.
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.
The most common treatment for skin cancer is surgery to remove the cancer (usually under a local anaesthetic). Common skin cancers can be treated with ointments or radiotherapy. Skin cancer can also be removed with 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
- surgeon – this can be a general surgeon, a surgical oncologist to manage complex skin cancers or a plastic surgeon trained in complex constructive techniques, including surgery if the cancer has spread.
In some cases of skin cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.
As well as slowing the spread of skin cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.
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 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.
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 index
The SunSmart UV index is reported in the weather section of daily newspapers and on the Bureau of Meteorology website. It can also be viewed 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.
For further information please read our position statements on sun protection and infants (0-12 months) and tinted windows.
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