What causes skin cancer?

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with over 750,000 skin tumours treated every year. In fact, two in three of us will develop the disease by the age of 70. So what causes skin cancers to develop in the first place, and what makes Australians so prone to them?

Some skin cancers such as melanoma can be caused by a genetic predisposition. If your family member had a melanoma, you are more likely to develop the disease in your lifetime. Melanoma kills over 2,000 Australians every year and is the deadliest form of cancer in young people nation-wide.

However, most skin cancers in Australia are caused by sun exposure rather than genetics. That doesn't mean you can only get skin cancer in sun-exposed areas like your face and arms, though. While tumours are more likely to develop in these places, they can also grow anywhere on your body, including under your fingernails and the soles of your feet.

Sunburn affects almost 14 per cent of adults, 24 per cent of teenagers and eight per cent of children on the average summer weekend. Many people get sunburnt while taking part in water sports or activities at the beach, but incidental sunburn is also a common problem. A lot of people report being sunburnt while gardening, walking their dog, hanging out the washing or simply having a barbecue.

You can even be sunburnt on cool or cloudy days. Why? Because, in Australia, the UV radiation emitted by the sun is always prevalent. It cannot be seen or felt, so people mistakenly believe it is not there when the weather cools. UV radiation is responsible for burning our skin - not the sun's heat or light - and easily permeates cloud cover.

Sun exposure causes irreversible damage to our skin cells, leading to early signs of ageing and increasing your risk of skin cancer. Light-skinned, fair-haired or blue- or green-eyed people are even more vulnerable due to their complexion.

Despite many Australians referring to a “healthy tan”, a tan is not a sign of good health. Sadly, 50 per cent of Australian adults still hold the misguided belief that a tan looks healthy.

Tanning is a sign that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation to damage your skin. This will eventually cause wrinkles, skin sagging, yellowish discolouration and brown patches. It also increases your risk of skin cancer.

With one skin cancer diagnosed every minute in Australia, it's a good idea to get regular skin checks from a qualified Skin Cancer Doctor, as early detection offers the best chance of a successful outcome for you.