Causes and prevention of skin cancer

What causes skin cancer?

The main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet light (UV) radiation from sunlight. There are two types of UV light that reach the Earth: UVA and UVB. Both are harmful.

Skin cancer can take 20 to 30 years to develop. Some people are more at risk than others. You may develop skin cancer later in life, if you

  • have fair, light-coloured skin that freckles or burns easily
  • had severe sunburn or blistering as a child
  • have been exposed to sunlight all your life
  • use tanning beds or sunbeds
  • have a history of severe skin damage, e.g. burnt skin
  • have a history of skin cancer
  • have a history of moles on your skin
  • have a history of skin cancer in your family
  • have been exposed to certain chemicals like coal tar, soot, petrol products, etc
  • have had radiotherapy in the past
  • have a weak immune system from taking certain medications that suppress your system.
  • have a rare inherited condition like albinism or xeroderma pigmentosa.

How can skin cancer be prevented?

Most skin cancers can be prevented by avoiding the sun when it's at its strongest and by paying attention to any early skin changes. Also, examine your skin regularly.

Avoid sun exposure

  • Avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm. During this time the sun's rays are strongest.
  • Wear protective clothing. Clothing should be dark and tightly woven and cover your arms and legs. Also wear a broad-brimmed hat and wraparound sunglasses.
  • Always wear sunscreen. Apply the cream 30 minutes before going out into the sun. Apply thickly and evenly every 2 hours no matter how high its protection. Make sure you're protected against both UVA and UVB rays. The sunscreen should have a SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher. The bottle should have UVA marked on it.
  • Avoid tanning beds or sunbeds. 

Read next: Visit our SunSmart section for information and advice on reducing your risk of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, May 10, 2016