Skin cancer in Australia

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Along with New Zealand, Australia has the highest incident rate for melanoma of any countryi. However, skin cancer is almost entirely preventable. We look at current statistics and share tips on how to protect yourself and your family from skin cancer.

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the worldii. Over 440,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each yeariii, and it is estimated that approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70ii. Caused by damaged skin cells, skin cancer can appear in the form of carcinomas - also referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers - and melanoma, the most dangerous form and the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in Australiai.

Half of Australian adults believe that a tan looks healthy, but in fact, a tan is a sign of skin damage.

Risks of a tan

Australians love the outdoors, and the desire for a tan has been part of the Australian culture for many years. Almost half of Australian adults still believe that a tan looks healthyiv. But in fact, a tan is a sign of skin damagev. Exposure to ultra-violet (UV) radiation, from both sunlight and solariums, is the major cause of melanoma in Australiavi.

Australia has higher UV indexvii values than many other countries. A high UV index leads to sunburn very easily, and puts Australians at an even higher risk to develop skin cancer. Sunburn causes 95% of melanomaiv.

National initiatives, such as the “Dark side of tanning campaign" developed by the Cancer Institute NSW, aim to educate adolescents and young Australians that there is nothing healthy about a tan - whether from the sun or a solariumviii: Fake tan lotions and sprays that temporarily give the skin a darker colour are a better alternative. However, don't forget that neither real tans nor fake tans provide sun protectioniv.

Small children's skin is very susceptible to sun damage, which makes adequate protection from sunlight especially important.

Prevent skin cancer

More than 10,300 Australians are diagnosed with a melanoma each year - a high number, especially given skin cancer is almost entirely preventableix. The following sun protection measures (released by Cancer Council Australia) can help you protect yourself and your family from skin cancer, particular when used together:

Protect your skin: Wear sun-protective clothing including a hat to protect your face, head, neck and ears. Liberally apply water resistant SPF30+ sunscreen 20 minutes before you go outdoors, and then every two hoursiv.

Be UV alert: Avoid sun exposure during times of the day with a very high UV Index. A UV Index forecast can be found on the Bureau of Meteorology Web site. In some states, such as the Northern Territory and Queensland, it is not uncommon for the UV Index to be classified as “extreme" for several hours per day (usually around noon) - and not only in summer.

Minimise sun exposure of babies and children: It is recommended to keep a baby's sun exposure to an absolute minimum over the first 12 months, as its skin is extremely susceptible to sun damageiv. The position statement on sun protection and infants (0-12 months) gives you recommendations on how to protect your baby from sunlight and provides advice regarding the use of sunscreen.

Look for symptoms: Detected early, melanoma is more likely to be treated successfully. Changes in shape, colour or size of a pigmented lesion or a new lesion can be indicators for skin cancer. It is recommended to check your skin for suspicious spots regularly (every three months). Don't forget to include areas of your skin that are not normally exposed to sunlight, and ask others to check difficult to see areas such as your backx. If you detect alarming skin changes, see a medical practitioner as soon as possible.

iCancer Council Australia, 2012, Melanoma,

iiSunSmart, 2012, Skin cancer,

iiiSunSmart, 2013, Skin cancer facts and stats,

ivCancer Council Australia, 2012, Skin cancer,

vBetter Health Channel, 2012, Skin cancer – tanning,

viAustralian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2012, Cancer incidence projections – Australia, 2011 to 2020,, p.57

viiWorld Health Organisation, UN Index: The UV Index Worldwide,

viiiSunSmart, Dark Side of Tanning (summer 2012–2013),

ixCancer Council Australia, 2012, SunSmart,

xCancer Council Australia, 2007, Position Statement – Screening and early detection of skin cancer,