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  • Certain people are at a higher risk than others of developing skin cancer. A person’s risk for developing skin cancer depends largely on two groups of factors – genetic and environmental.

    Risk factors for melanoma

    Dr Elizabeth Baird, outlines the relationship between UV, melanocytes in the skin, tanning and melanoma risk. She discusses the risk factors of skin type and family history in the development of melanoma.

    Genetic factors

    These are the individual’s family history and their inherited genes, so a person who has a family history of skin cancer is more likely to develop cancer themselves because of the genetic factors involved.

    Genes also determine individual traits such as hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, and numbers of moles and freckles. Each of these traits is linked to the risk of developing skin cancer, for example, melanoma is less common in people with dark skin than in people with fair skin.

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    Skin types

    Different skin types have different risks of developing cancer.

    Environmental factors

    The most relevant environmental factor is sun exposure. UV radiation causes damage to the DNA of cells, which, if not repaired, can create mutation in the genes. Both cumulative sun exposure to UV and incidences of sunburn have been linked to different types of skin cancer.

    The intensity and length of sun exposure, the age at which the sun exposure occurs and the colour of skin all affects the chances of developing skin cancer. Exposure to environmental factors is influenced by our behaviour (such as sport and leisure activities outdoors) and our attitudes (how important we think it is to protect our skin and what steps we are prepared to take to do that).

    Who is most at risk?

    People with the highest risk include those who have:

    • a large number of moles or freckles
    • unusual moles
    • a history of sunburn
    • fair skin and/or red hair
    • had a skin cancer before
    • had an organ transplant, or a suppressed immune system.

    People who have had one skin cancer are at much higher risk of developing another. For example, people with a basal cell carcinoma have an almost 30% chance of developing another skin cancer in the next three years.

    However, skin cancer can develop in anyone, not only people with these risk factors.

    Nature of Science

    When scientists talk about what they have found out, they often state their findings as percentages or the probability that such an event may occur. The language of mathematics can be very helpful in explaining and understanding scientists’ predictions.

    How can we reduce our risk?

    Early detection and prevention of excessive sun exposure are the best ways to reduce risk.

    Reducing the risks

    Dr Elizabeth Baird, specialist dermatologist at Remuera Dermatology, discusses ways in which you can reduce your risk of developing melanoma. The risks of sunbeds are highlighted.

    Early detection

    Early detection and diagnosis is the key to successful treatment and to reducing the impact of scars from surgery. It is important to check your skin regularly for any changes (such as new or changed freckles or moles, or sores that don’t heal) and visit a doctor with any concerns.

    It is useful to remember the ABCDE mnemonic for melanoma:



    According to the Cancer Society of New Zealand the most significant way to reduce risk is to protect yourself from the sun during peak UV radiation periods, from September to April, especially between 10 am and 4 pm when the UV levels reach their peak.

    • Seek shade between 10am and 4pm. Being in the shade can reduce overall exposure by about 75%.
    • Do not burn. New Zealand research suggests that a 10% reduction in the number of people who have blistering sunburn could prevent 28 cases of melanoma per year in New Zealand.
    • Cover up with a broad-brimmed hat, clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen.
    • Wear a broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB radiation.
    • Take particular care when you are near reflective surfaces like snow, water or sand, by wearing sunscreen on your face, even while wearing a hat.
    • Do not use sunbeds or sunlamps.
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    Sunburned and peeling arm

    Sunburned and peeling arm showing evidence of sun damage and increased risk of developing skin cancer.

    The article UV and sunbeds explains local legislation and guidelines regarding sunbeds.

    Related content

    These related articles explain more about skin cancer, why NZ skin cancer rates are so high, and how skin cancer is diagnosed and treated.

    Activity idea

    For those interested in protection from UV, begin with The face of melanoma, an activity that looks at lifestyle factors that contribute to skin cancer. Follow this with activities using the popular UV beads: UV bead items, Investigating UV intensity and Investigating sunscreens. There is also a unit plan covering this aspect of UV.

    Useful links

    This DermNet NZ web page looks at sun protective clothing.

    This Skin Cancer Foundation web page looks at skin types and at risk groups.

    The SunSmart website is designed for students, teachers, schools and parents. It has information about UV, shade, hats, sunscreen, skin cancer and sun protection, as well as cross-curricula resources for teachers in the SunSmart Schools section.

    Results released in 2018 from the Wellington Kids’Cam study by the University of Otago, show that people need to wear sun hats and stay in the shade a lot more.

    This HealthMatch article, Top 20 skin cancer hot spots in the world and why they're on the list, explores the roles that personal, cultural, and global habits play in rates of skin cancer and what we can do to change them.

      Published 29 July 2008, Updated 13 October 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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