Melanoma Awareness, Skin Cancer

Do you know your skin cancer risk?

Understanding the 7 skin cancer risk factors could help protect your life – find out why.

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Team MoleMap Creator
Posted 06/01/21
Skin cancer risk factors 1000

Did you know there are seven factors that can affect your risk of getting melanoma and other skin cancers? Read on to learn more about these risk factors, why they matter, and the simple measures you can take to reduce your risk.

Living in New Zealand comes with glorious sunshine and the great outdoors, but on the downside, it also comes with the highest rate of melanoma in the world1. Melanoma is the most life-threatening form of skin cancer and astonishingly, around 13 New Zealanders are diagnosed with it every day2.

What’s more, any time you’re in the sun, even just for a few minutes, UV rays can damage your skin. And it all adds up – recent Australian research showed that the more time you spend unprotected in the sun, the greater the risk of melanoma.

Read on to learn the seven factors that can put some people at more risk of developing skin cancers than others. Before you panic - having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop skin cancer, but it’s important to be aware of the risks so that you can take protective measures if you’re higher risk.

Family history of skin cancer increase your risk

Risk factor 1: Your family history
If one or more of your immediate relatives has had melanoma, your risk of developing it is higher. In fact, you’re twice as likely to develop melanoma if there’s a history in your close family (parents, siblings or children)3. Another significant risk factor is your personal history: if you’ve had melanoma once, unfortunately you have a nine times higher risk of getting melanoma again.4

If you do have a personal or family history of melanoma, we highly recommend that you have a Full Body MoleMap every year (our most comprehensive service which includes mole-mapping and monitoring over time).

The Fitzpatrick scale

The Fitzpatrick scale, showing the 6 basic skin colours: the lighter your skin, the higher your skin cancer risk.

Risk factor 2: Your skin and hair colour

As anyone with pale skin knows, those with fairer skin are more susceptible to sunburn and have a higher risk of developing skin cancers. The Fitzpatrick scale is made up of six skin types that help determine your skin cancer risk. Types 1 and 2 refer to ivory or very fair skin with naturally blonde or red hair and light-coloured eyes. People with these types of skin have a higher risk of sun damage and developing all types of skin cancers, including melanoma.

If you have fair, ivory or freckly skin – and especially if you’ve been sunburnt a few times, it’s a good idea to have a Full Body MoleMap every year for peace of mind.

If you have olive or dark skin, it doesn’t mean you won’t get melanoma or other skin cancers. While those with darker skins, such as Māori and Pasifika, have a lower chance of getting melanoma, they often present with thicker, more serious melanomas by the time they get it checked.2

If your skin is darker and you don’t have any of the other risk factors, you may not need to have it checked as often as someone with lighter skin – a MoleMap Skin Check every one to two years would be a good option for you.

Age increases skin cancer risk 1000

Risk factor 3: Your age
Over 50? The bad news is that you’re in the age group that has a higher risk of all types of skin cancer. Around 70% of melanoma cases occur in people aged 50 years and older2. Not only that, most non-melanoma skin cancer (such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) typically appears after age 50 too.

So, if you are over 50 and notice any unusual or changing moles or sunspots (see what to look for), get it checked by your GP or MoleMap as soon as possible.

Again, while age increases your risk factor, being under 50 doesn’t mean you don’t need to worry about getting melanoma – it’s less common, but younger people can get it too.

Skin cancer risk many moles 1000

Risk factor 4: You have a lot of moles
A mole (or nevus) is a non-cancerous, pigmented tumour. They often appear in children and young adults and generally are of no concern. But for people who have a number of moles, the risk of developing melanoma is higher, even up to seven times more if you have more than 100 moles.6

If you have a number of moles, a quick once-over from your GP may not be thorough enough: it pays to have them checked by a specialist skin cancer detection service every year.

Risk factor 5: You have unusual moles
Unusual or atypical moles
have some similar features to melanoma. They’re often larger and may have an odd shape or colour – sometimes called ‘the ugly duckling’ as they look quite different to your other moles. For people that have more than five unusual moles, the risk of melanoma is six times higher.7

If this sounds like you, or someone you know, check out the ABCDEEFG guide to spotting melanoma so you know what signs to look for.

Sunburn increases skin cancer risk 1000

Risk factor 6: You’ve been sunburnt

Getting sunburnt at any age – whether as a child, teen or adult – increases the risk of all skin cancers, including melanoma, in later life2. Remember that sunburn is sun damage, so if you’re out in the sun, especially during the summer months, follow these protective tips - and above all, try to avoid getting sunburnt.

If you have children, keep them covered up or in the shade. Research shows that sun exposure in childhood gives a greater risk of melanoma than sun exposure in later life.8

Outdoor lifestyle increases skin cancer risk 1000

Risk factor 7: You have an outdoors lifestyle.

If your skin is exposed to the sun regularly through work or play, this can increase your risk of skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

However, in the case of melanoma, recent studies show that there’s a greater risk from occasional high doses of sun exposure, such as during holidays, weekends and recreational activities, than with more continuous sun exposure like working outdoors regularly9.

Either way, whenever you’re outdoors, make sure you protect your skin in the sun and stay in the shade whenever possible.

Worried that you have a high skin cancer risk?

If one or more of the above risk factors apply to you (or to someone close to you), talk to your GP or MoleMap Melanographer about the best ways to protect your skin – and which type of skin cancer check is best for you.

If you haven’t already, take our skin cancer risk quiz. Developed by dermatologists, it’s the quick, easy way to check your risk levels – and also lets you know the next steps you should be taking, such as reducing your sun exposure or having regular skin checks.

If you’re considered high risk, we recommend having a comprehensive skin cancer check every year: preferably one that includes total body photography such as a MoleMap Skin Check+ - or has the added reassurance of mole-mapping and monitoring over time, such as a Full Body MoleMap.

Regular skin checks reduce skin cancer risk 1000

How can you reduce your skin cancer risk?

Whether you’re high, medium or low risk (take our quick skin cancer risk check to find out), it’s important to be really vigilant about both protecting and checking your skin.

Early detection is the best protection, so get to know your skin and moles - and check them yourself at least every three months for any changes. If you have any concerns, see your doctor straight away - and see a skin cancer detection specialist such as MoleMap every year.

And of course, good protection when you’re out in the sun is vital. Check out how to stay SunSmart here, or a simple way to remember this is the SPOT rule of thumb:

SLAP on a SPF30+ sunscreen every day.
PROTECT your skin – cover up or stay in the shade.
OBSERVE – look for changes in your skin regularly.
TRACK changes every year with MoleMap.

Learn more about MoleMap’s range of skin check services, or if you’re worried about your risk, book a SpotChat for free advice from a trained Melanographer on your next steps.

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References: 1. Health Promotion Agency and the Melanoma Network of New Zealand (MelNet) 2017: New Zealand Skin Cancer Primary Prevention and Early Detection Strategy 2017 to 2022. 2. Melanoma NZ: https://www.melanoma.org.nz/be-informed/understanding. 3. Gandini et al (2005) Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: III. Family history, actinic damage and phenotypic factors. European Journal of Cancer, Vol. 41(14):2040-2059. 4. Bradford et al (2010) Increased risk of second primary cancers after a diagnosis of melanoma. Archives of Dermatology, Vol. 146(3):265-272. 5. Watts et al (2014) Clinical practice guidelines for identification, screening and follow up of individuals at high risk of primary cutaneous melanoma: a systematic review. British Journal of Dermatology, Vol. 172(1):33-47. 6, 7. Gandini et al (2005) Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: I. Common and atypical naevi. European Journal of Cancer, Vol. 41(1):28-44. 8. Ministry of Health: https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/melanoma 9. NIWA UV Workshop, 2014: Trends in melanoma incidence and mortality in New Zealand: https://www.niwa.co.nz/sites/niwa.co.nz/files/Sneyd_UV%20Workshop_2014_Melanoma.pdf

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