What does skin cancer look like? (And more sun smart facts)


4 minutes

16 November 2021

A young woman at the beach putting sunscreen on her nose and smiling

Enjoying the beautiful sunshine is one of the simple pleasures of life in Australia – but it’s essential to always stay sun smart.

The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can be harmful, and Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.1

In fact, every year skin cancer makes up around 80% of newly diagnosed cancers in Australia.1 By age 70, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer.2

So what should you be looking out for? Let’s take a closer look at some things you should know.

In this article

Types of skin cancer

First, what actually is skin cancer? The one we most often hear about is melanoma, but there are three main types to know about:

  • Melanoma is considered the most serious form of skin cancer, because it can spread quickly throughout the body.3 The first sign is usually a new mole or changes to an existing one.4
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) makes up 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers. It tends to grow slowly and usually doesn’t spread to other parts of the body. It can appear as a pearly lump or a dry, scaly area of skin.5
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) accounts for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers. It generally grows quickly, over weeks or months. It may look like a sore, a fast-growing lump, or a thick, red, scaly spot.5

What does skin cancer look like?

It’s important to become familiar with your skin and regularly check it for new or changing spots, freckles, or moles.3

The first sign of skin cancer is usually a spot, lump, or crusted area on the skin, or a mole that changes shape, size, and colour over a period of weeks or months. 3

Skin cancers can be sensitive to touch and may become inflamed and bleed.3

So what exactly should you look for when checking a spot? A good way to remember is ‘ABCDE’:3

  • Asymmetry. Is one side of the spot differently shaped to the other?
  • Border. Is the outline uneven, jagged, or spreading?
  • Colours. Are there several different colours, or is the colour uneven or blotchy?
  • Diameter. This essentially means the length or width of the spot – is it getting bigger?
  • Evolution. Is the spot changing or growing over time?

If you answered yes to any of these, or you have any other concerns about skin changes, it’s important to see your GP for a closer look.3 The sooner a skin cancer is identified, the better.1

Understanding your skin cancer risk

Most skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight.Some factors that increase your risk include sunburn, tanning, and using solariums.1

Your risk of developing skin cancer may increase further if:3

  • You’ve previously had skin cancer or have a family history of skin cancer.
  • You have fair or freckled skin (especially if it burns easily or doesn’t tan), or red or fair hair and light-coloured eyes.
  • You have a weakened immune system (such as post-surgery, or from an ongoing condition).
  • You have sunspots or irregular moles on your body.
  • You’ve spent a lot of time in the sun (for example for work, playing sport, or leisure time).

How is skin cancer treated?

Most skin cancers can be successfully treated, especially if they’re caught early.3

Your GP can examine your skin and may perform a biopsy (removing a small sample of tissue for diagnosis) and refer you to a dermatologist or surgeon if necessary.1

The most common skin cancer treatment is surgery to remove the cancer, which is usually done under a local anaesthetic.1

Other treatments can include ointments, radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy), and cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen to freeze and remove the cancer).1

Be sun safe

Prevention is better than cure. You can reduce your risk of skin cancer by using a combination of sun safety measures:1 

  • Slip on clothing that covers and protects as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on sunscreen that’s SPF30 (or higher), broad-spectrum and water-resistant.
  • Slap on a broad-brimmed hat to protect you face, head, neck, and ears.
  • Seek shade.
  • Slide on sunglasses that meet Australian sun safety standards, ideally in a wrap-around style.6 (Along with your skin, it's important to protect your eyes from UV rays.6)

Remember, if you have any concerns about changes to your skin, or want to know more about your risk of skin cancer, talk to your GP.

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  1. 1The Cancer Council – Skin cancer
  2. 2The Medical Journal of Australia – Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985 (2006)
  3. 3healthdirect – Skin cancer and melanomas (2020)
  4. 4The Cancer Council – Melanoma
  5. 5The Cancer Council – Non-melanoma skin cancer
  6. 6The Cancer Council – Protecting your eyes from the sun


This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.