The basics

There are two different categories of skin cancer – melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma starts in skin cells called melanocytes and usually affects moles. Non-melanoma cancers (which are more common in general but less common in young people) start in other types of skin cells. Both types can be caused by exposure to the sun.

Protect your skin

Looking after your skin now can help you avoid skin cancer in the future. So follow these five simple steps to prevent skin damage (and to prevent the lobster look…)

  • Cover up – think long-sleeves, sarongs and long shorts
  • Slap on the suncream – water resistant and at least factor 30
  • Wear a hat or cap – cowboy, straw, baseball, bowler – whatever you fancy
  • Slip on your shades – your eyes need protection too
  • Chill out in the shade – especially between 11am and 3pm.

Find out about our Shunburn campaign on staying safe in the sun 

Warning signs

Melanoma usually – but not always – causes changes to moles. It’s always worth getting checked out if you have a mole that:

  • gets bigger
  • changes shape
  • has a blurred, rough or jagged outline
  • gets darker or red
  • has more than one colour in it
  • gets itchy or painful
  • gets crusty or bleeds.

Non-melanoma skin cancer is extremely rare in young people but is usually fairly easy to recognise. Look out for:

  • spots or sores that don’t heal, even after a few weeks
  • spots or sores that are itchy, sore, scabbed or bloody for several weeks
  • ulcers that last for several weeks without any obvious cause.

You’re more likely to get skin cancer – particularly a non-melanoma skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma – if you had radiotherapy when you were younger. Cancers tend to develop in the skin that was treated with radiation.

How is it diagnosed?

There are two main tests used to identify skin cancer. A specialist might oil the area you’re worried about and then look at it using a dermatoscope – which magnifies the area. And you might need to have a biopsy, when a skin sample is taken, usually under local anaesthetic, and then examined under a microscope for signs of cancer.

You can find out more about all of these techniques in our Getting diagnosed section.

How's it treated?

Surgery is usually the only treatment you need if you have non-melanoma skin cancer. The affected cells are removed along with a surrounding area, to make sure no cancer cells are left behind.

There’s also photodynamic therapy, when cancer cells are killed by bright light after you’ve taken a drug that makes your skin more sensitive to light.

And radiotherapy is also sometimes used instead of or as well as surgery. Chemotherapy creams and injections are options too.

The treatment for melanoma depends on how advanced it is. Catch it early, and the mole is usually removed, along with a surrounding area. More advanced melanoma might be treated using chemotherapy, radiotherapy, biological therapy (where drugs are used to shrink melanoma) or surgery.

Find out more about cancer treatments.