Risk factors

People at higher risk of skin cancer

People at higher risk of skin cancer are those who:

Personal or family history of skin cancer

If you have previously been diagnosed with melanoma you are at a higher risk of developing another melanoma. People who have been diagnosed with another type of skin cancer, such as a basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, are also at increased risk of developing a melanoma.

Be aware of your family’s skin cancer history to help inform your own risk.

UV damage is the cause of most skin cancers. However, 5–10% of people diagnosed with melanoma have one or more family members who have also had melanoma.

A large number of moles

The more moles you have on your skin, the higher the risk of the most dangerous type of skin cancer – melanoma. 

Moles are overgrowths of melanocytes (a type of skin cell). We are not normally born with moles, but most of us will develop some on our skin by 15 years of age.

The number of moles we develop is determined by genetic (inherited) factors and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Australians tend to have more moles than people living in other countries, possibly because of childhood sun exposure.

What do moles look like?

Moles are usually medium to dark brown but can also be pale or black.

The majority of moles are flat and have an even shape and colouring. Some moles are raised and these are usually soft to touch and lighter in colour.

Dysplastic moles

These moles look different to ordinary moles and may evolve to melanomas. If you have multiple dysplastic moles you are at greater risk of melanoma. Your doctor may recommend regular checks with a dermatologist (skin specialist).

See your doctor if you think you have moles with the following 'dysplastic' features:

  • larger than most moles
  • smudgy and irregular edges
  • uneven in colour
  • may have some pinkness.      

Skin types and skin colour  

Some people are at higher risk of skin cancer because they have a skin type that is more sensitive to UV damage.

People with light-coloured eyes and red or fair hair also have an increased risk of melanoma, compared to people with darker hair and eyes.

Table of skin types & skin colours

History of bad sunburn

While sun exposure in the first 10 years of life determines a person's lifetime potential for skin cancer, sun exposure in later life determines the extent to which this potential is realised. You can reduce your risk of skin cancer at any age by improving your sun protection use, whether you are 15 or 50.

Spend lots of time outdoors unprotected or work outdoors

Within Australia, 95% of melanomas are attributable to overexposure to UV radiation. Outdoor workers in Australia receive up to 10 times more sun exposure than indoor workers, placing them at an increased risk of skin damage and skin cancer.

Suntan, use or have used solariums and/or sunlamps

Solariums emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation up to three times as strong as the midday summer sun. This is equivalent to a UV level of 36, whereas the UV levels in Victoria rarely exceed 12. Exposure to UV radiation from the sun or a solarium increases your risk of skin cancer and ages your skin. Tanning without burning can still cause skin damage, premature ageing and will increase your risk of skin cancer. Research shows that using solariums before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 59%. Commercial solariums were banned in Victoria on 1 January 2015.

What to do if you are 'at risk'

If you meet any of the above criteria, see your doctor to develop a surveillance plan and check your skin regularly for any changes.

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