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What causes skin cancer?

3-minute read

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.

Almost all skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or other sources such as solariums.

Sunburn

  • 95% of melanomas, the most serious form of skin cancer, are caused by exposure to UV radiation such as sunburn.
  • 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 ultraviolet radiation is not as strong. This is untrue — you can still be sunburnt when the temperature is cool or when it is cloudy.
  • 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.

Tanning

  • A tan is not a sign of good health or wellbeing, despite many Australians referring to a ‘healthy tan’.
  • 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, depending on your skin type. It does not protect from DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer.

Fake tans

  • Fake tan lotions and sprays contain ingredients that temporarily stain the skin a darker colour. The tan fades as dead skin cells flake off, often in around a week.
  • 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.
  • While fake tans are not harmful, they do not offer any protection. They also perpetuate the perception that tanning is desirable.
  • More information about fake tans is available in Cancer Council’s position statement on fake tans.

Solariums

Exposure to ultraviolet radiation through the use of sunbeds, or solariums, significantly increases the risk of developing melanoma. Solariums emit UV radiation levels up to 6 times higher than the midday summer sun.

Commercial solariums have been banned in all Australian states and the ACT. (There are no commercial solariums in the Northern Territory).

Cancer Council Australia does not recommend solarium use for cosmetic tanning under any circumstances.

Last reviewed: July 2018

Need more information?

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Top results

Causes of skin cancer - Cancer Council Australia

What causes skin cancer? Find information on the risk of exposure to UV radiation, including tanning, sunburn, fake tans and solariums.

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Sunburn - Better Health Channel

Even mild sunburn can cause permanent skin damage and may increase your risk of skin cancer.

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UV & Sun Protection - SunSmart

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the major cause of skin cancer so it's important to check the UV level and sun protection times each day.

Read more on Cancer Council Victoria website

Skin cancer - SunSmart

Skin cancer is very common in Australia and is caused by harmful levels of UV radiation from the sun and other sources such as solariums.

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Sun protection using sunscreens | ARPANSA

There is well established evidence that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Sunscreens are an effective method of sun protection when used with a combination of other protective measures.

Read more on ARPANSA – Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency website

Sunburn | National Centre for Farmer Health

Sunburn is when your skin is burned by radiation from the sun. Sunburn can cause permanent skin damage. By the time signs and symptoms of sunburn appear, skin damage has already occurred. Not only will radiation from the sun damage your skin it can damage your eyes and contribute to the development of cataracts.

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Sun protection using shade | ARPANSA

There is well established evidence that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Seeking shade is a practical form of sun protection when used with a combination of other protective measures.

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Sun protection using clothing | ARPANSA

There is well established evidence that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Clothing is a very effective method of sun protection when used with a combination of other protective measures.

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Sun protection using hats | ARPANSA

There is well established evidence that exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Broad-brimmed hats, bucket hats and legionnaire-style hats are effective methods of sun protection to the head, ears, face and neck when used with a combination of other protective measures.

Read more on ARPANSA – Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency website

Sun protection in the workplace - Cancer Council Australia

Find information on protecting outdoor workers from skin cancer, including workplace guides for prevention, sun protective clothing, and OHS issues.

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