In June we published our skin cancer report, which collates the findings on diet, nutrition, physical activity and the risk of skin cancer.

There is strong evidence that being taller increases the risk of melanoma (a type of skin cancer) and that drinking water contaminated with arsenic increases the risk of skin cancer (melanoma and non-melanoma). But radiation from the sun is the most important risk factor for skin cancer.1

Sun, cells, and skin cancer

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the primary cause of skin cancer; this can be directly from the sun or through man-made sources such as sunbeds. The role of sun damage is supported by the association between measures of sun sensitivity and skin cancer incidence, which is higher in people who have pale skin that burns without tanning, blue eyes and fair hair.

Both the duration and severity of exposure is important: there is a dose-response relationship between the number of sunburn episodes during any life period (childhood, adolescence or adulthood) and the risk of melanoma, meaning that the greater the number of times a person has been sun-burnt the greater the chance of developing skin cancer.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that skin cancer rates are highest in Australia and New Zealand – countries that are close to the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic, where UV radiation is not filtered in the same way as other regions. That said, the higher rates observed here are also thought to be due to their latitude, improved screening for skin cancer, and migration of non-native people with fairer skin to this area.

Reducing risk

The bottom line for skin cancer prevention is to be sun safe. However, our new report reveals other avenues worthy of investigation. The findings on adult attained height warrant further research that may help to answer key questions on the process of cancer development and progression across the life course. In addition, the findings on drinking water contaminated with arsenic are a stark reminder of the role of government action for issues of public health significance.

What can health professionals do?

Promote sun safety this summer. Encourage people to:

  • spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm 
  • make sure they never burn 
  • cover up with suitable clothing and sunglasses 
  • take extra care with children 
  • use at least factor 30 sunscreen

Find out more on the NHS website.

References

1World Cancer Research Fund International. Skin cancer, how diet, nutrition and physical activity affect skin cancer risk. 2019.