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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.

The majority of skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight.


  • 95% of melanomas, the most severe 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.
  • 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’.
  • 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.


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.

Solariums emit 2 categories of ultraviolet radiation:

  • Ultraviolet radiation A (UVA), in the range 315 nanometers to 400 nanometers is thought to contribute to premature aging and wrinkling of the skin and has recently been implicated as a cause of skin cancer.
  • Ultraviolet radiation B (UVB), in the range 280 nanometers to 315 nanometers, is more dangerous than UVA and has been implicated as the major cause of skin cancers, sunburning and cataracts.
  • Cancer Council Australia does not recommend solarium use for cosmetic tanning under any circumstances.
  • Commercial solariums have been banned in most Australian states and territories.

Last reviewed: September 2016

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