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Preventing Skin Cancer

Prevention » SunSmart » Preventing Skin Cancer

Preventing Skin Cancer

To minimise you and your family's risk of skin cancer adopt a combination of the 5 sun protection measures when spending time outdoors when UV levels reach 3 and above.

In Canberra this will be for part or most of each day from around August through to the end of May. Canberrans are encouraged to download the SunSmart app to assist them with daily sun protection times. 

Around June and July sun protection is generally not necessary in Canberra due to low UV levels (under 3). Sun protection in June and July may still be required for people who have a history of skin cancer or are spending extended time in the sun i.e. outdoor workers. For more information read Cancer Council Australia’s Position Statement Risks and Benefits of Sun Exposure.

Remember, extra care should always be taken during the "peak UV period" of the year. Cancer Council ACT recommend people aim to at least minimise their outdoor activities and events when possible between 11am and 3pm during the summer/ daylight saving period of the year, this is the time of the year when UV levels are at their strongest, increasing your risk of sunburn and skin damage that can lead to skin cancer.

For more information on the above sun protection measures and more view our Information Sheets.


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.


Within Australia, 95% of melanomas are attributable to overexposure to UV radiation or sunburn. 1 Sunburn is a marker of exposure to harmful levels of UV radiation; 1, 2 a history of sunburn is associated with increased melanoma risk. 3,4,5,6

The latest national data for Australian adolescents and adults show that approximately one in five adolescents and one in eight adults were sunburnt on a typical summer weekend when they were outdoors. 7 Both adolescents and adults had a similar likelihood of being sunburnt whether outdoors at the beach or a sporting ground. 8

Sunburn can occur in as little as 15 minutes on a fine January day in Australia. 9 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. The positive association between self-reported lifetime sun exposure and skin damage (hyperpigmentation) and ageing (wrinkling) is particularly strong for young people. 10


A tan is not a sign of good health or wellbeing, despite many Australians referring to a ‘healthy tan’.

Tanning is a photoprotective response to UV-induced DNA damage, 11 resulting in pigmentation darkening due to increased melanin in the epidermis. 12 In other words, when skin is over-exposed to UV radiation, more melanin is produced, thereby darkening the skin. A tan is a response to excessive UV exposure, and is therefore a sign that UV damage has occurred.

A tan will only offer very limited protection from sunburn, but usually no more than SPF3, depending on your skin type. 13 It does not protect from DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer. Furthermore, research has also shown that a false sense of protection from a baseline tan encourages individuals to increase their time in the sun, thereby increasing their chance of sunburn and in the long run skin cancer. 14


Due to the associated health risks, commercial solariums were banned from 1 January 2015 in most Australian states and territories, including the ACT. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) re-classified sunbeds into the highest risk category (Group 1, “carcinogenic to humans”). 15

Finding skin cancer early

Most skin cancers can be successfully treated if detected early. Individuals who are concerned about their skin cancer risk or have noticed any changes to their skin should seek advice from a medical practitioner to discuss their skin cancer risk and need for medical checks or self-examination etc.

As melanoma and NMSC skin cancers are often identifiable to the naked eye, skin self-examinations by patients and total-body skin examinations by physicians can lead to earlier detection and a reduction in mortality. 16,17

The 2011-12 ABS Australian Health Survey estimates that over half (56%) of men regularly check their skin for changes in freckles and moles - slightly less often than for women (61%). 18

Know your skin

Become familiar with your skin and see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice:

  • a spot that is different from other spots around it
  • a mole or freckle that has changed in size, shape, or colour
  • a suspicious spot that is new or has changed over weeks or months in colour, size or shape, or
  • an inflamed sore that has not healed in 3 weeks.

A general sense of abnormality compared with an individual’s other pigmented lesions can also be a sign of a cancerous lesion - the so-called “ugly duckling” effect. 19,20

Cancer Council Australia and the Australasian College of Dermatologists do not endorse the practice of skin checks in public places as a screening method, but do recognize the value in promotional or educational activities that raises awareness of early detection and skin cancer prevention. 

For more information read Cancer Council Australia’s Position Statement – Screening and early detection of skin cancer.

Take a good look at yourself

The general public are encouraged to check all areas of their skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun. Look for changes in shape, colour or size of a pigmented lesion or a new lesion.  Individuals should seek assistance from others to check difficult to see areas such as the back.

If you are concerned about your skin cancer risk OR have noticed a spot on the skin that has changed in size, shape or colour, or that itches or bleeds, or that wasn't there before, you should see a doctor. Your general practitioner (GP) should be your first point of call. 

In some cases your GP may refer you to a specialist or even suggest you go to a skin cancer clinic. For more information or to request a brochure on early detection signs call Cancer Council 13 11 20. 


1. Armstrong BK. How sun exposure causes skin cancer: An epidemiological perspective In: Hill D, Elwood JM, English D. Prevention of Skin Cancer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers; 2004. p. 89-116.

2. Whiteman DC, Whiteman CA, Green AC. Childhood sun exposure as a risk factor for melanoma: a systematic review of epidemiologic studies. Cancer Causes Control 2001 Jan;12(1):69-82 [Abstract available at

3. Pfahlberg A, Kölmel KF, Gefeller O, Febim Study Group. Timing of excessive ultraviolet radiation and melanoma: epidemiology does not support the existence of a critical period of high susceptibility to solar ultraviolet radiation- induced melanoma. Br J Dermatol 2001 Mar;144(3):471-5 [Abstract available at].

4. Veierød MB, Adami HO, Lund E, Armstrong BK, Weiderpass E. Sun and solarium exposure and melanoma risk: effects of age, pigmentary characteristics, and nevi. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2010 Jan;19(1):111-20 [Abstract available at].

5. Cust AE, Jenkins MA, Goumas C, Armstrong BK, Schmid H, Aitken JF, et al. Early-life sun exposure and risk of melanoma before age 40 years. Cancer Causes Control 2011 Jun;22(6):885-97 [Abstract available at].

6. Kennedy C, Bajdik CD, Willemze R, De Gruijl FR, Bouwes Bavinck JN, Leiden Skin Cancer Study. The influence of painful sunburns and lifetime sun exposure on the risk of actinic keratoses, seborrheic warts, melanocytic nevi, atypical nevi, and skin cancer. J Invest Dermatol 2003 Jun;120(6):1087-93 [Abstract available at

7. Volkov A, Dobbinson S, Wakefield M, Slevin T. Seven-year trends in sun protection and sunburn among Australian adolescents and adults. Aust N Z J Public Health 2013 Feb;37(1):63-9 [Abstract available at

8.Volkov A, Dobbinson SJ. 2010–11 National Sun Protection Survey Report 2. Australians’ sun protective behaviours and sunburn incidence on summer weekends, 2010–11 and comparison with 2003–04 and 2006-07. Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria; 2011 Oct.

9. Samanek AJ, Croager EJ, Gies P, Milne E, Prince R, McMichael AJ, et al. Estimates of beneficial and harmful sun exposure times during the year for major Australian population centres. Med J Aust 2006 Apr 3;184(7):338-41 [Abstract available at].

10. Kimlin MG, Guo Y. Assessing the impacts of lifetime sun exposure on skin damage and skin aging using a non-invasive method. Sci Total Environ 2012 May 15;425:35-41 [Abstract available at].

11. Gilchrest BA, Eller MS. DNA photodamage stimulates melanogenesis and other photoprotective responses. J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc 1999 Sep;4(1):35-40 [Abstract available at].

12. Coelho SG, Choi W, Brenner M, Miyamura Y, Yamaguchi Y, Wolber R, et al. Short- and long-term effects of UV radiation on the pigmentation of human skin. J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc 2009 Aug;14(1):32-5 [Abstract available at].

13. Gange RW, Blackett AD, Matzinger EA, Sutherland BM, Kochevar IE. Comparative protection efficiency of UVA- and UVB-induced tans against erythema and formation of endonuclease-sensitive sites in DNA by UVB in human skin. J Invest Dermatol 1985 Oct;85(4):362-4 [Abstract available at].

14. Dennis LK, Lowe JB. Does artificial UV use prior to spring break protect students from sunburns during spring break? Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed 2013 Jun;29(3):140-8 [Abstract available at

15. El Ghissassi F, Baan R, Straif K, Grosse Y, Secretan B, Bouvard V, et al. A review of human carcinogens--part D: radiation. Lancet Oncol 2009 Aug;10(8):751-2 [Abstract available at].

16. Balch CM, Soong SJ, Atkins MB, Buzaid AC, Cascinelli N, Coit DG, et al. An evidence-based staging system for cutaneous melanoma. CA Cancer J Clin 2004 May;54(3):131-49; quiz 182-4 [Abstract available at].

17. Berwick M, Begg CB, Fine JA, Roush GC, Barnhill RL. Screening for cutaneous melanoma by skin self-examination. J Natl Cancer Inst 1996 Jan 3;88(1):17-23 [Abstract available at

18. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 4364.0 - 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey: Health Service Usage and Health Related Actions. Canberra, Australia: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2013 Available from:

19. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Guidelines for preventive activities in general practice. East Melbourne, Australia; 2012.

20. Grob JJ, Bonerandi JJ. The 'ugly duckling' sign: identification of the common characteristics of nevi in an individual as a basis for melanoma screening. Arch Dermatol 1998 Jan;134(1):103-4 [Abstract available at