Information for patients

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. If you're worried about skin cancer, or would like more information about it, follow the links below. There are a number of organisations that provide expert advice and information for patients and the general public in the UK. We would encourage you to visit their websites. See 'Where to go for further information' for a list of these.


What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. There are two main types of skin cancer:

Malignant melanoma: This is the most serious type but is less frequent. It requires early treatment because if the disease progresses too far it can lead to death.

Non-melanoma: This type of cancer can be formed from either squamous or basal cell carcinomas and is the most common type of skin cancer. It is rarely fatal and can be easily treated as long as it is diagnosed early on.

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How is it caused?

Most skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from natural (the sun) or artificial sources (e.g., sunbeds).

Beach legs
The genetic material contained in the skin cells (DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid) can get damaged by exposure to UVR and cause changes to occur (mutations). These mutations can make the cells behave in an uncontrolled manner and, in some cases, start growing as a tumour.

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How many people does it affect?

In 2012, there were over 95,000 new cases of skin cancer registered in England, more than 11,300 of which were new cases of malignant melanoma (a rate of 23.5 melanomas per 100,000 people).

Crowd on bridge

The incidence of skin cancer in England (in terms of the number of new cases) roughly doubled between 1996 and 2012. Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer with over 82,800 cases in 2012 (Source: National Cancer Registration Service). However cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are under-reported so this is an under-estimate.

Like most cancers, skin cancer is more common with increasing age, but malignant melanoma rates are high in younger people, especially women. More than one quarter of all cases of malignant melanoma occur in people aged under 50. Incidence of malignant melanoma is higher in women until the age of 60 but incidence of malignant melanoma is higher in men after the age of 60 and increases very sharply in older men (Source: National Cancer Registration Service).

To compare rates of malignant melanoma incidence and mortality by Local Authority in England, see the skin cancer profiles.


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What are the risk factors?

Kids at the beach

The main risk factors associated with skin cancer include:

  • over-exposure to the sun, especially at a young age, leading to burns;
  • over-exposure to artificial ultraviolet radiation, for example, through unsafe use of sunbeds;
  • immunosuppression following a transplant, which can lead to the development of squamous cell carcinoma;
  • exposure to arsenic has been correlated with skin cancer;
  • genetics or family history of skin cancer;
  • previous diagnosis of skin cancer.
More information on Skin cancer risks factors are available from Cancer Research UK's

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Is it fatal?

The mortality rate for malignant melanoma in England in 2012 was 4.8 per 100,000 in males (1,030 deaths) and 2.8 per 100,000 in females (751 deaths). Non-melanoma skin cancer is rarely life threatening but if left untreated, can lead to surgery and possible disfiguration.

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How can I prevent it?

Behaviour change is an important part of skin cancer prevention. Here are a few tips:



Shady nap

Do not let your skin burn. Sunburn can lead to skin cancer. If your skin has gone red in the sun, it's sunburnt. Sunburn doesn't have to be red-raw, peeling or blistering. (Cancer Research UK)

Spend some time in the shade when it is very hot, especially during peak hours, between 11am and 3.00pm.

Apply sunscreen with sun protection factor 15 or above. The back of the neck and ears should not be forgotten.

Wear appropriate clothing. It is now possible to find clothing made with fabrics protecting the body from UV radiation. Wearing a hat with a rim and flap is also recommended for children and during outdoor work, sports and spectator events. Long-sleeved t-shirts with collars, long shorts and sunglasses with UV protection are all recommended.

Do not use sunbeds. See the advice from Cancer Research UK

Take special care with children and babies. Children and babies need extra protection from the sun because their skin is delicate and easily damaged. You will not see the damage immediately because skin cancer can take years to develop. But children who are exposed to too much sun now are storing up problems for the future. Sunburns during childhood can dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer later on in life. (Cancer Research UK)

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How can I protect my children and grandchildren?

Baby sun lotion

Children have more sensitive skin than adults and are therefore at risk of burning easily. It is important to educate young people about the risk factors associated with skin cancer and what they need to do to prevent it. It is important to tell them about the dangers associated with the use of sunbeds.

Also, Cancer Research UK provides information and resources for schools to help promote skin protection messages among young people.

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Early warning signs and the importance of early diagnosis

An early sign of skin cancer can be the appearance of moles or dark patches on your skin, so it is important to check these on a regular basis.

If you spot any changes in the size, shape or colour of your mole(s) or those of any member of your family, please visit your doctor as soon as possible.

Apply the ABCD rule to help you remember the warning signs:

Early warning signs

Images courtesy of Cancer Research UK.

Other mole changes to watch out for are:

  • inflammation
  • oozing
  • change in sensation.

Scaly or crusty patches bigger than 1cm that won't heal are signs of possible squamous cell carcinoma.

For more information on how to spot the symptoms early download the Cancer Researck UK leaflet: Skin cancer: how to spot the symptoms 

See also the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence's (NICE) Suspected cancer: recognition and referral

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What to do if you suspect skin cancer

If you spot any changes in the shape, colour or size of a mole, or the appearance of a suspicious growth or lesion, you should make an appointment with your General Practitioner (GP) and be examined as soon as possible. If the mole or lesion is diagnosed as 'low risk', your GP might remove it if he/she has had the appropriate training. Otherwise you will be referred to a hospital specialist.

GP examining hand

For more information on referral guidance, see the latest issued by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence


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Where to go for further information


Improving Outcomes for People with Skin Tumours including Melanoma - NICE Guidance

NICE Guideline on Melanoma

NICE Guidance: PH32 Skin cancer prevention: information, resources and environmental changes: guidance

Sun, UV and Cancer - Cancer Research UK

Sun Awareness Campaign - British Association of Dermatologists

Melanoma and Non-Melanoma - Macmillan Cancer Support

MARCs Line - Wessex Cancer Trust

Teenage Cancer Trust

Skcin - The Karen Clifford Skin Cancer Charity

Melanoma in Focus

Melanoma UK



Choose your cover - Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

INTERSUN - World Health Organisation

SunSmart South Australia

SunSmart Victoria

SunSmart New Zealand

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