Skin Cancer


Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland. There are over 11,555 non-melanoma skin cancers and over 1,194 melanomas diagnosed every year

Women are more likely to get skin cancer than men. But men are more likely to die from it. Ireland has the 14th highest rate of skin cancer in the world.

What is skin cancer?

It is cancer that begins in the skin. Skin cancer is split into two different types, depending on the skin cells that are affected.

  • Non-melanoma skin cancer develops slowly on the upper layers of the skin. This type of skin cancer is more common but less serious. The two types are Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma.
  • Melanoma skin cancer is more serious and can spread to other parts of the body like the brain or the lung.

How serious is skin cancer?

Survival rates are improving but skin cancer, especially melanoma, can kill if it is not caught quickly.

More than four people die every week in Ireland as a result of skin cancer. The majority of these people have melanoma skin cancer.  Men die from skin cancer more often than women.

It also affects men of all ages - rates are increasing among both younger and older men.

Watch this video from Irish people affected by skin cancer to understand how serious it is and to hear about some of the ways you can prevent it.

Why are more people getting skin cancer?

The number of people being diagnosed with skin cancer in Ireland and around the world is going up every year. Rates of this cancer are growing faster than any other type of cancer. This is because we are increasingly likely to develop skin cancer. Generally speaking Irish people have type 1 or 2 skin which is pale and highly sensitive to the sun and almost always burns if exposed. We are spending more time outside, we are going on more overseas holidays and getting short, sharp bursts of intense sun and we are also exposing more of our skin than previous generations.

How do I prevent skin cancer?

Nearly all cases of skin cancer can be prevented by being SunSmart. It just takes a few simple steps:

sunscreenAlways wear sunscreen

Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going out into the sun. Apply thickly and evenly every 2 hours no matter how high the SPF is. Apply the equivalent of a shot glass full of sunscreen to each limb and to your body and about half this much to your face. Always reapply after swimming or sweating. Remember no sunscreen gives 100% protection from the sun.

uvSunscreen with UVA protection

Choose a sunscreen that has good protection against UVA and UVB rays as well as a high SPF. This is because both UVB and UVA rays can cause skin cancer. In Ireland, the level of UVA protection might be shown in one of two ways

  • Star rating
  • A symbol with the letters UVA inside a circle

avoid-sunAvoid the sun between 11am and 3pm

This is when the sun's rays are strongest. This applies all year round, not just in summer. It is important to remember that the sun's rays are present even on a cloudy day.

clothesWear protective clothing

Clothing should be dark and tightly woven and cover your arms and legs. Wear a broad-brimmed hat that provides lots of shade. Remember to protect your eyes too by wearing sunglasses. Choose a wraparound pair that give UV protection. Check the sunglass tags to ensure that they give good protection. You can look out for these quality marks:

  • European Standard EN1836
  • British Standard BS 27241987

sunbedNever, ever use sunbeds

Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to tanning outdoors. Some sunbeds use UV rays that are 10 to 15 times more intense than those that come from the midday sun. Using a sunbed, even just once, increases your risk of melanoma skin cancer by 20%.

What are the signs of skin cancer?

Skin cancers do not all look the same but it’s important to keep an eye on your moles and freckles. Check them regularly to see if any of them have changed. Use the ABCDE checklist to look for any of the following signs:



If you draw a line through a melanoma, the two sides will not match



The border of an early melanoma tends to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.



Most healthy moles are all one colour. A mole with a number of different shades of brown, black or tan is a warning sign. Melanomas may also be blue, red or some other colour



Melanomas are usually larger in size than the rubber at the top of a pencil (¼ inch or 6mm)



Any change in shape, colour, size, elevation (height), or any other trait, or a new symptom like bleeding, itching or crusting is a warning sign. If you see any of the above signs in your moles, see your GP. Remember that skin cancer can be deadly but it’s very treatable if it’s caught early.

What will happen if I notice that one of my moles has changed?

If you notice any of these changes, you should see your GP without delay. Your GP will look at the mole and ask you what you have noticed about it. He or she will examine your skin and if they think that your mole looks as if it might be melanoma, they will arrange for you to see a skin specialist, called a dermatologist. You should be seen within 2 weeks.

When you have your appointment with the dermatologist, they will examine your skin again.  He or she may ask you about your family history of melanoma as well as other questions about your health and especially your skin. The dermatologist might use two different tests to establish if you have melanoma:

  • A skin exam, which is also called a dermascopy
  • An excision biopsy, where the doctor will take a sample of cells from the mole to look at under a microscope

Once the dermatologist knows if your mole has cancerous cells in it or not, he or she can talk to you about the next steps. Most melanomas in Ireland are found at an early stage when they are treatable.

Where are you most likely to get a melanoma?

Men are most likely to develop a melanoma on the chest or back. Women are most likely to get it on the legs.

Should I stay out of the sun?

Some sunlight is good for you - it boosts vitamin D - but sun-bathing should be kept to a minimum. Most dermatologists say that you can get enough Vitamin D from 30 minutes in the sun so there is no need to lie on a beach or pool when on holiday.

Think about other places you might be exposed to the sun:

  • driving (80% of UV gets through the average car window)
  • walking
  • playing sport
  • gardening
  • at work, depending on your job

Make sure you protect your skin while you are at these places by covering up and by wearing sunscreen.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

Besides the way you treat your skin in the sun, using a sun bed or tanning devices also increase your risk. Sun beds can be even worse for your skin than sitting out in the sun. Using a sun bed just once can increase your risk of melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, by 20%.

Your family history also affects your risk of developing skin cancer. If someone in your family has had melanoma, it doubles your risk of developing the disease in people with a family history of the same disease.

Your skin and hair type also play a role.

  • The risk of melanoma is 57% higher in people with blue eyes than with brown eyes, for example.
  • It is 200% higher in red/red-blonde hair, compared with dark-haired people.

As a rule, the more freckles/moles you have the lighter your skin type and the more you should stay out of the sun.

How do I know what sunscreen to buy?

Everyone should use sunscreen every day, even when you are in Ireland and it is cloudy as the sun’s damaging UV rays are still getting through the clouds. Make sure that you are using a sunscreen that blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation.  It is also important to use a sunscreen with a high SPF- at least SPF 30. Look for bottles that have either a five star rating symbol on them or else a symbol with the letters UVA inside a circle.

Reapply every two hours and use waterproof sunscreen if in the water.

What’s the treatment?

Most skin cancers in Ireland are treated with surgery. The cancerous mole and the skin around it is removed. While for many people this means that they can then move on with their lives, it can be a traumatic experience, may leave them with a scar and is also costly for the health service so it would be better for everyone in Ireland if we were all more SunSmart and looked after our skin in the sun so as to avoid developing skin cancer in the first place.

The Marie Keating Foundation’s Get Men Talking campaign is proudly supported by: