How to prevent skin cancer

As two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70, it is very important to be vigilant about your skin health and take action today to ensure your skin is protected from skin cancers in the future. Here is what you can do to help prevent the onset of skin cancer.


What causes skin cancer?

The main cause of skin cancer is unprotected exposure to the sun's UV radiation. The damaging effects of UV rays are permanent and irreversible, leading to early signs of skin ageing such as wrinkles and sun spots. We acquire most of our sun damage during childhood, but usually the effects (such as wrinkles and skin cancers) aren't seen until our later years. But that doesn't mean taking preventative action as adults is ineffective. There are still steps you can take to reduce your skin cancer risk and prevent malignancies.

The key to preventing skin cancer is staying sun safe every day.

  • Avoid the sun between 10:00am and 3:00pm, when UV radiation levels peak.
  • If you need to go outside, seek shade whenever possible.
  • Apply SPF30+ sunscreen every day as part of your daily skin care routine, especially in summer. Sunscreen is best applied 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapplied every few hours, especially if you are sweating or swimming. You only need to apply sunscreen to areas of your body exposed to the sun.
  • Dress in collared, long-sleeved shirts and pants.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat that covers your whole head, ears and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses, especially when near reflective surfaces such as sand, concrete, glass, water or snow, which can intensify UV radiation.

Did you know? UV radiation is different from the sun's heat and light. UV levels can still be high on cool or cloudy days, so it is important to check the UV Index if you plan to spend more than 10 minutes outside.

Risk factors

Not all skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. Some melanomas are hereditary, meaning they are passed from first degree relatives such as your parents. If your parent, sibling or child has every had melanoma, your own risk increases by 50 per cent and you should get regular skin checks from your skin cancer doctor to catch malignancies early.

Some people are at higher risk of developing skin cancers than others, and need to take more precautions to help prevent the onset of skin cancer. You are at higher risk of skin cancer if you are over 40 years old, have ever been sunburnt, have fair skin, have lots of moles or freckles, have a family history of skin cancer, or work outdoors.

You've been sunburnt... now what?

Sunburn is your body’s reaction to excessive exposure to UV radiation, as the top layers of skin release chemicals that cause your blood vessels to expand, leading to pain, inflammation and redness. If you are not protected from the sun, UV radiation will penetrate into the layers of your skin and damage the cells. In as little as 11 minutes, your skin turns red and may start to peel, which is the body’s way of shedding damaged cells that could become cancerous.

The symptoms of sunburn can last for days or weeks, although the effects last forever. All sunburns cause irreversible damage that fast-tracks the ageing process and increases your risk of skin cancer. You can relieve the symptoms of sunburn by:

  • avoiding sun exposure until your sunburn has heeled;
  • drinking plenty of water;
  • taking cool showers;
  • adding a cup of vinegar to a cool bath; and
  • using a moisturiser to prevent new skin from drying out.

You should seek emergency medical treatment if you experience:

  • severe sunburn with extensive blistering and pain;
  • sunburn over a large area;
  • headache;
  • nausea and vomiting;
  • fever; or
  • dizziness.

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