Skin cancer

Being safe in the sun is the best way to reduce your risk of skin cancer

How common is skin cancer?

Skin cancers can be divided into two main groups: melanoma and non-melanoma. In the UK, in 2015 there were 15,906 cases (8112 cases for men, 7794 cases for women) of melanoma; making it for both men and women the 5th most common cancer. The number of people diagnosed per year with either type of skin cancer is projected to increase over the next 20 years.

How is skin cancer caused?

The primary cause of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers is through exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays; this can be directly from the sun or through tanning devices. The evidence that overexposure to the sun causes skin cancer has been consistent for decades. However, many people still don’t protect themselves from the sun, putting themselves at increased risk of skin cancer. 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. The chance of developing skin cancer is also higher the greater the number of times you have been sun-burnt (during childhood, adolescence or adulthood).

How can you reduce your risk of skin cancer?

Unlike many other cancers, diet and exercise patterns do not appear to be strongly associated with your risk of skin cancer. We want to remind people that there are simple but important steps you can take to prevent yourself from developing skin cancer. It is therefore important for everyone to be safe in the sun; whether at home or abroad. The NHS has a number of sun safety tips which include spending time in the shade between 11 am and 3 pm during March to October, using at least factor 30 sunscreen and covering up with suitable clothing including a hat and sunglasses.

Risk factors

While sun exposure is still the greatest risk factor for skin cancer, our research has shown there is strong evidence that:

  • Consuming arsenic in drinking water increases the risk of skin cancer. Thankfully this is not an issue in the UK, but countries with higher levels of arsenic in drinking water include Bangladesh, China and India
  • Being tall increases the risk of malignant melanoma
  • Consuming high-dose beta-carotene supplements is unlikely to have a substantial effect on the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer. So, for cancer prevention do not rely on supplements.

There is limited evidence that:

  • Consuming coffee might decrease the risk of malignant melanoma in women
  • Consuming coffee might decrease the risk of basal cell carcinoma (in men and women)
  • Consuming alcoholic drinks might increase the risk of malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma
  • Being tall might increase the risk of basal cell carcinoma
  • Greater birthweight might increase the risk of malignant melanoma

This information is based on research from our Continuous Update Project (CUP).

Other risk factors

Medication

Medicines used to suppress the immune system after organ transplantation are associated with increased risk of skin cancers, particularly squamous cell carcinoma.

Infection

Infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) can cause squamous cell carcinomas of the skin, especially in people whose immune systems are compromised.

People living with HIV are at higher risk of squamous cell carcinoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that can involve the skin).

Occupational exposure

Exposure to specific chemicals used in the plastic and chemical industries – polychlorinated biphenyls – is strongly associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.

Genetics and family history

Some rare mutations in specific genes can lead to skin cancer. Having a family history of skin cancer also increases the risk.

Skin pigmentation

Skin cancer is more common in lighter-skinned populations than in darker-skinned populations.

 
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