Dear doctor, how can I tell if I’m at risk of skin cancer and is there anything I can do to reduce the risk?

17 July 2018

I’ve never been keen on sunbathing but I do spend a lot of time outdoors as part of my job. I’m in my 50s and have noticed some new moles recently. How can I tell if I’m at risk of skin cancer and how can I reduce my risk?

This is a very common question people ask dermatologists. New moles do appear throughout our lives, and there is also a very common kind of skin growth called a seborrheic keratosis, which can mimic a true mole but is completely benign. But as we get older, particularly over 50, we should look at new moles a bit more seriously.

There is little doubt that a lifetime of working outside increases the risk of sun damage to the skin. However, large Australian studies have shown that acute sunburn in childhood is a very important factor for the production of melanoma later in life. Cumulative exposure over years however, is more related to less serious forms of skin cancer than melanoma.

Melanoma is still reasonably uncommon, with about 1:8500 people being affected yearly in the Hampshire area, but this rate is increasing annually.

Factors that increase the risk of developing melanoma are; multiple atypical moles, a family history of melanoma, and a tendency to burn easily in the sun.

A lot of people have many moles and it's almost part and parcel of being Caucasian. If you have lots of asymmetrical moles with a variation in pigmentation then it is important to be more vigilant of any changes. 

You should also remember to use a sunscreen of at least SPF 30. The Sun Protection Factor is a reflection of protection against UVB. This will not only prevent sunburn, but recent studies in Australia have shown that it may actually reverse changes that have been caused by previous UV exposure.

Also always look at the star rating on the back of the sunscreen. This shows the amount of protection against UVA which is very important not only in protecting against skin cancer but in decreasing skin ageing as well.

Although sunscreen is important, it's probably more important to avoid sun exposure during the middle of the day and to cover up with light clothes and a hat.

Find out more about Dr Stephen Keohane, Consultant Dermatologist practising at Spire Portsmouth Hospital.


The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.

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