Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
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.
There are three main types of skin cancer:
•melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer
•basal cell carcinoma*
•squamous cell carcinoma*
*Both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are known as non-melanoma skin cancer.
Symptoms and diagnosis
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).
If you notice any changes consult your doctor. 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.
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 no more than SPF4, 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.
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
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 statements 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.
•Issued by the Bureau when they forecast a UV Index for the day of three or above, the SunSmart UV Alert identifies the 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:
1.Planning the day’s activities outside the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
2.Cover as much skin as possible with loose fitting clothes and wraps made from closely woven fabrics.
3.Choosing a hat that protects the baby’s face, neck and ears.
4.Make 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.
5.Keep an eye on the baby’s clothing, hat and shade to ensure they continue to be well-protected.
6.Apply 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.