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Image of a doctor examining a patient's moles to look for signs of skin cancer or melanoma.

Image of a doctor examining a patient's moles to look for signs of skin cancer or melanoma.
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The truth about skin cancer

Blog post | 24 Nov 2018

Each year, there are more new diagnoses of skin cancer in Australia than of any other cancer, but there's still confusion about what causes it, and how you can best protect your skin.

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of myths about skin cancer — you might hear them at a barbecue or get them in your social media feeds. But if you know the facts, you can protect yourself more effectively and stay safer.

Fact: You don't have to get sunburnt to get cancer

Solariums, for example, which were banned for commercial use from January 2015, don't cause sunburn but do emit up to 3 times more UV (ultraviolet) radiation than the midday summer sun. People who use a solarium (or 'sun-tanning bed') before age 35 are at greater risk of developing skin cancer than people who do not use them.

Fact: You can get sunburnt in a car

While the glass in vehicle and building windows filters out some UV radiation, you can still get burnt if you routinely spend a lot of time near a window in the middle of the day. People who drive cars and trucks for a living, for example, should protect themselves with a long-sleeved and collared shirt, sunglasses and sunscreen — especially if they drive with the side window down.

Fact: Fake tanning products aren't worse for your skin than the sun

While the Cancer Council does not promote the idea that tanned skin is more desirable than fair skin, it advises that people who have a strong preference for darker skin should opt for a fake tanning product over UV radiation from the sun.

Fake tanning lotions contain DHA (dihydroxyacetone), a dye that binds with dead cells in the upper layer of the skin to stain the skin. DHA is considered safe for use on the skin, although there's no research on the safety of exposure to DHA in the area around the eye, lips, mucous membranes or when it's ingested or inhaled. So be cautious — especially when getting a professional spray tan.

Fact: Melanoma isn't the only skin cancer that can kill

While people diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer, are less likely to survive than people diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC), in 2015 there were more than 600 deaths from NMSC in Australia. (NMSC includes squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma [BCC], but it is rare to die from a BCC, which is a slow-growing cancer that does not spread to other parts of the body.)

There is currently no screening program for melanomas or NMSC. You should check your skin routinely for irregular or changing lesions and, if you're at high risk of skin cancer, get an annual check by your doctor or dermatologist (skin specialist).

Fact: People with olive or dark skin can get cancer too

While a fair complexion and freckles is a risk factor for skin cancer, people with skin types less likely to burn (darker skin) can also get enough UV exposure to risk developing skin cancer. Regardless of your skin type, you should always:

  • Slip on sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on SPF30+ (or higher) sunscreen. Put it on 20 minutes before you go outdoors and every 2 hours afterwards.
  • Slap on a hat — broad-brim style to protect your face, head, neck and ears.
  • Seek shade.
  • Slide on some sunglasses — make sure they meet Australian Standards.

For more information

It's National Skin Cancer Action Week. Use the hashtag #OwnYourTone on social media to remind others there's no such thing as a healthy tan, and that it's totally OK to have fair skin. Visit the Cancer Council to learn more about skin cancer.

You can see a GP or visit a skin cancer clinic for a skin check. Your GP may refer you to a dermatologist (skin specialist). To find the right health professional for you, use the healthdirect service finder or visit the Australasian College of Dermatologists.

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