• There are two different types of skin cancer: melanoma and non-melanoma
  • Melanoma usually (but not always) causes changes to moles
  • Non-melanoma is more common overall but less common in young people
  • Having had radiotherapy treatment when you were younger can increase your risk of skin cancer
  • Protecting your skin from the sun can reduce your risk of skin cancer

What is skin cancer?

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.

Skin cancer symptoms

Diagnosing skin cancer early saves lives, so it’s really important to know what to look for.

Melanoma usually (but not always) causes changes to moles.

You should contact your GP 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 very rare in young people. The signs are usually 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 a few weeks
  • ulcers that last for a few weeks without any obvious cause.

I had cancer in the past – am I more at risk of skin cancer?

You’re more likely to get skin cancer if you had radiotherapy when you were younger.

The risk is higher particularly for a non-melanoma skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma.

Cancers can also develop in the skin that was treated with radiation.

How is skin cancer diagnosed?

There are two main tests used to find skin cancer.

A specialist might oil the area you’re worried about and then look at it using a dermatoscope – an instrument that magnifies the area.

You might need to have a biopsy, which is when a sample of the skin is taken, usually under local anaesthetic (where a small part of your body is numbed), and then looked at under a microscope for signs of cancer.

You can find out more in our Getting diagnosed section.

Melanoma skin cancer treatment

The treatment for melanoma depends on how advanced it is.

Catching it early means the mole is usually just 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 – sometimes a combination of them all.

Non-melanoma skin cancer treatment

Usually, the only treatment needed for non-melanoma skin cancer is surgery. The affected cells are removed along with a surrounding area, to make sure no cancer cells are left behind.

There’s also photodynamic therapy, which is 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.

Find out more about cancer treatments.

Protect your skin from skin cancer

Looking after your skin now can help you avoid skin cancer in the future.

Follow these five simple steps to prevent skin damage (and the lobster look…)

  • Cover up – wear long sleeves, trousers or things like sarongs on hot days.
  • Use suncream – make sure it’s water resistant and at least factor 30
  • Wear a hat or cap – whatever style you like, it can help protect you from the sun
  • Wear sunglasses – your eyes need protection too
  • Stay in the shade – especially between 11am and 3pm.

The information on this page is more than three years old.