Common risk factors for skin cancer include having fair skin, having many moles and freckles, excessive sun exposure and solarium use. Some ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is important for health, but too much UV can cause sunburn, skin and eye damage and skin cancer. Protecting your skin can help reduce your risk of skin cancer.
Anyone can develop skin cancer. The major cause is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and other artificial sources, such as solariums, but there are other factors that can increase or reduce your risk of skin cancer including skin type, having moles and freckles, personal or family history of skin cancer, a pattern of daily sun exposure and solarium use.
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Two in three Australians will develop some form of skin cancer before they reach the age of 70 and over1,900 people die of skin cancer each year. Yet skin cancer is one of Australia’s most preventable cancers.
Protecting your skin can help reduce your risk of skin cancer. A healthy amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is important for maintaining healthy vitamin D levels in the body, but too much UV can cause sunburn in the short term, and skin and eye damage and skin cancer in the long term.
Every additional decade of high sun exposure or solarium use further increases the risk of melanoma (a form of skin cancer). By reducing recreational sun exposure at any age, the risk of melanoma is reduced.
Skin cancer in Victoria
Over the past 30 years, skin cancer control programs like the SunSmart program have educated Victorians about the importance of sun protection at any age.
While the incidence of melanoma continues to rise in Victoria, the rate at which this is increasing has slowed, particularly in younger age groups. Those who have been exposed to skin cancer control programs for a greater portion of their life are benefiting the most from lower rates of death (reduced morbidity) from melanoma.
UV exposure in Australia
UV radiation levels in Australia are higher than in Europe. During summer, the earth’s orbit brings Australia closer to the sun than Europe during its summer, resulting in an additional seven per cent solar UV intensity. Combined with our clearer atmospheric conditions and some differences in ozone level, we are exposed to some of the highest UV levels in the world.
UV radiation, tanning and sunburn and the risk of skin cancer
Skin cells in the top layer of skin (the epidermis) produce a pigment called melanin that gives skin its natural colour. When skin is exposed to UV radiation, more melanin is produced, causing the skin to darken. This is what we call a ‘tan’. A tan is a sign that the skin is getting UV radiation damage. It is not a sign of good health but rather of skin cells in trauma.
Tanning can contribute to DNA damage, premature skin ageing and skin cancer. Every time skin is exposed to the sun or a solarium, the total lifetime dose of UV radiation is increased. Over time, this damage adds up, even when no sunburn is experienced.
All types of sunburn, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage and can lay the groundwork for skin cancer to develop later in life.
It is recommended that all people, regardless of skin type, protect themselves when UV level is 3 and above.
Hereditary factors and skin cancer
Family history and hereditary factors (particularly within your immediate family) play an important part in your risk of developing skin cancer. This is demonstrated by the increased incidence of skin cancer among Caucasian people. If one or both of your parents have had a skin cancer, you could be at risk, especially as you are likely to have the same skin type as them.
In a rare inherited condition, people with xeroderma pigmentosum have a defect in their enzyme system, which is responsible for the repair of UV-damaged DNA. As a result, they develop signs of sun damage while very young and usually develop skin cancer before they turn ten.
Skin type and skin cancer
People with fair skin are at higher risk of skin cancer than people with naturally dark skin. Skin type is hereditary. Parents with fair skin should educate their children about the importance of sun protection and encourage them to develop good sun protection habits from an early age. This is the best way to help reduce their risk of skin damage and skin cancer in later life.
The melanin in naturally dark skin offers some protection against the damaging effects of UV radiation and the risk of skin cancer is lower. However, when skin cancer is detected in people with naturally dark skin, it is often found at a later, more dangerous stage when the risk of death is much higher.
People with naturally very dark skin do not normally need to apply sunscreen as they can often tolerate high levels of UV without getting burnt. However, this is an individual decision based on individual skin responses to UV.
Vitamin D deficiency may be a greater health concern for people with naturally very dark skin, as it is more difficult for people with this skin type to make vitamin D.
Everyone, whatever their skin type, should become familiar with their skin. Check all of your skin, not just sun-exposed areas. If you notice anything unusual, including any change in shape, colour or size of a spot, or the development of a spot, visit your doctor.
Moles and freckles and skin cancer
Most people have moles and freckles. However, if you have a great number of freckles or moles, you are at higher risk of skin cancer.
Moles or freckles that grow, change shape or colour, bleed or ulcerate, or any new spots that appear, should be treated with suspicion. Have your doctor check out any unusual changes to your skin as soon as possible.
Solariums and skin cancer
Solariums tan the skin by radiating it with both UVA and UVB radiation, which are known to be dangerous to the skin. UV radiation from a solarium is also more intense than natural sunlight: up to six times as strong as the midday summer sun. Research shows that people who use a solarium before the age of 35 have an 87 per cent greater risk of melanoma than those who don’t use a solarium.
In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed ultraviolet-emitting tanning beds in its highest cancer risk category and labelled them as ‘carcinogenic to humans’.
Commercial tanning units in Victoria will be banned from December 31, 2014 in line with similar provisions in New South Wales and South Australia.
Reducing your skin cancer risk
There is not much you can do about your hereditary risk factors, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of skin cancer from UV radiation and sun exposure.
Use a combination of the five sun protection measures during the daily sun protection times to reduce your risk:
- Slip – on sun-protective clothing. Make sure it covers as much skin as possible.
- Slop – on SPF (sun protection factor) 30+ broad-spectrum sunscreen. Reapply it every two hours or more frequently if swimming of perspiring.
- Slap – on a hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.
- Seek – shade.
- Slide – on sunglasses. Make sure they meet Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1067:2003.
Winter activities such as snow skiing or snowboarding also pose a high risk of skin damage and sunburn. UV radiation is more intense at high altitude than at sea level. This is because the air is clearer and there is less atmosphere to absorb harmful UV rays.
UV and vitamin D – a healthy balance
A balance of UV radiation exposure is important for health. Too much UV from the sun can cause skin and eye damage. Too little UV from the sun can lead to low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is important for regulating calcium levels in the blood. It is also necessary for the development and maintenance of healthy bones, muscles and teeth.
Where to get help
- SunSmart Tel. (03) 9635 5148
- The Cancer Council of Victoria Information and Support Line Tel. 13 11 20
- Multilingual Cancer Information Line, Victoria Tel. 13 14 50
- Your doctor
- Your local community health centre
Things to remember
- Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
- Everyone, no matter what their skin type, is at risk of sun damage and skin cancer.
- All Australians should become familiar with their skin. If you notice anything unusual, including any change in shape, colour or size of a spot, or the development of a spot, visit your doctor.
- Overexposure to the sun can cause skin damage that may lead to skin cancer. It’s important to balance protecting yourself from skin cancer and getting enough sun to produce vitamin D.
You might also be interested in:
- Cancer screening.
- Skin cancer - children.
- Skin cancer - prevention and early detection.
- Skin cancer - protecting outdoor workers.
- Skin cancer - tanning.
- Solariums (sunbeds and tanning beds).
- Sun protection in the snow.
- Vitamin D.
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Last reviewed: October 2012
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