SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
- Regardless of skin type, everyone is at risk of sun damage and skin cancer.
- Skin cancer is mostly preventable.
- Check the sun protection times each day and use the 5 sun protection measures.
- Most skin cancers can be successfully treated, if found early.
- If you notice anything new or unusual on your skin, see your doctor.
On this page
Each year, over 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer; yet skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. The majority of skin cancers can be successfully treated, if found early.
While prevention is better than cure, being familiar with your own skin should help you to detect any suspicious lumps or spots as soon as they develop, at a stage when they have a better chance of being successfully treated.
Types of skin cancer
The 3 main types of skin cancer are:
- basal cell carcinoma
- squamous cell carcinoma
These are named after the type of cell they start from.
Basal cell carcinoma
This is the most common but least dangerous form of skin cancer. It most often occurs on the head and neck, followed by the upper body.
These cancers are often red and slightly raised, with a scaly area that can bleed if knocked. They often become ulcerated as they develop.
Squamous cell carcinoma
This cancer grows over a period of weeks or months and may spread to other parts of the body if not treated quickly. It occurs most often (but not only) on areas exposed to the sun. This can include the head, neck, hands and forearms.
This cancer looks like thickened, red, scaly spots.
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Melanoma can grow quickly, developing over weeks to months. If caught early, it is usually treatable. However, if detected in a later stage, it may have already spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal.
Common melanomas appear as a new spot or as an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes colour, size or shape. They are usually flat with an irregular, smudgy outline and are often more than one colour. Even mild sunburn and tanning can contribute to skin cell damage that can lead to melanoma.
Nodular melanoma is a highly dangerous form of melanoma that looks different from common melanomas – they are raised and are even in colour (often red or pink and some are brown or black). This type of melanoma grows quickly and can be life-threatening if not detected and removed quickly.
Prevention of skin cancer
Whenever UV levels are 3 or higher, use a combination of sun protection measures (broad-brimmed hat, clothing, sunscreen, shade, and if practical, sunglasses). Don't just wait for hot and sunny days to use sun protection as UV can still reach damaging levels, even on cool, cloudy days.
The sun protection times indicate when the UV is forecast to be 3 or higher and are available:
- as a free SunSmart app
- online at SunSmart
- online at Bureau of Meteorology
- in the weather section of newspapers
- as a free website widget.
Check the sun protection times each day, and during those times use a combination of 5 SunSmart measures:
- Slip on sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
- Slop on SPF30 (or higher) broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapply it every 2 hours (even if the label states it is 4 hours water-resistant). Never use sunscreen on its own or to extend the time you spend in the sun.
- Slap on a broad-brimmed hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.
- Seek shade.
- Slide on wrap-around sunglasses. Make sure they meet Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1067. Optometry Australia recommends using eye protection all year.
UV levels are most intense during the middle of the day.
Use the same SunSmart measures for the rest of your family too. People who work outdoors are advised to use sun protection all year round.
Read about skin cancer and sun safety for children.
Be aware of your skin
All Australians should become familiar with their skin. Be aware of your entire body as skin cancers can sometimes occur on parts of the body that are not exposed to the sun.
Use a hand-held mirror to check the skin on your back and the back of your neck, or ask someone else to look for you. Don't forget your armpits, inner legs, ears, eyelids, hands and feet. Check between your fingers and toes. Use a comb to move sections of hair aside and inspect your scalp.
Be alert to new or changing moles, freckles and spots. If you notice anything unusual, see your doctor straight away. If you don't have a regular doctor, you can make an appointment with any doctor for a skin examination.
If you are considering using a skin cancer clinic, first find out about the services offered and the expertise of the staff.
Watch this SunSmart video about how to check for skin cancer.
Skin cancer – what to look for
Look for any changes to your skin.
Be aware of any new spots or changes to existing spots, moles or freckles.
If you notice anything new or unusual on your skin, see your doctor.
Diagnosis of skin cancer
Skin cancer is diagnosed by physical examination and biopsy.
A biopsy is a quick and simple procedure where part or all of the spot is removed and sent to a laboratory. It may be done by your doctor or you might be referred to a dermatologist or surgeon. Results may take about a week to come through.
In some cases, your biopsy may remove all of your skin cancer and you may not require further treatment.
Treatment of skin cancer
In choosing the best treatment option, your doctor will consider your age and general health, the type and size of cancer, where it is on your body and what you want. The treatment choice will also depend on whether the skin cancer has spread elsewhere in your body.
Types of further treatment include:
- removing lymph nodes
- targeted therapy
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 606 024 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- SunSmart Tel. (03) 9514 6419
- Cancer Council Tel. 13 11 20 – for information and support
- Cancer Council – Support in your own language Tel. 13 14 50
- Causes of death, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
- Cancer, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Government.
- Skin cancer incidence and mortality, 2021, Cancer Council Australia.