What is Melanoma?

Skin cancer prevention starts with protection and early detection

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from the skin’s pigment cells, known as melanocytes. When the melanocytes combine, they create freckles or moles, most of which are perfectly safe, however in some cases, melanocytes expand into the lower layers of the skin, and can become a melanoma.

The main cause of melanoma is overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation – like sunlight – although it can occur anywhere on the skin, including places that receive little or no sun exposure, like the soles of your feet or even inside the mouth.

People with fair or freckled skin, lots of moles, a history of sunburn in childhood or adolescence, or a family history of melanoma may be more at risk.

Melanoma grows quickly. Untreated, it can spread deeper into the skin and be carried to other parts of the body (like the lungs, liver and brain) via lymph or blood vessels.

Sun-smart tips to protect your skin

When the UV is 3 or higher, use a combination of these measures to protect your skin.


Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible. The best protection comes from closely woven fabrics. For clothes designed for sun protection, the higher the UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), the greater the protection.


Apply a water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30+ or higher at least 20 minutes before going outside, as it takes this long to sink into the skin. Reapply every two hours, after swimming and after any activity that causes you to sweat or rub the sunscreen off.


Wear a broad-brimmed hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.


Use shade from trees, umbrellas, buildings or any type of canopy. Be aware that UV radiation is reflective and bounces off surfaces such as concrete, snow, water, soil and sand, causing sun damage even when you think you’re shaded.


Wear sunglasses that meet the Australian and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 and have an EPF (eye protection factor) of 10. Close-fitting, wrap-around styles are best.

Early detection is key

The first sign of a melanoma is usually a new spot, or an existing freckle or mole changing size, shape or colour over weeks or months. The good news is that, if detected early, melanoma can be effectively treated.

Get familiar with how your skin looks, so that you can spot any changes quickly, which might suggest a skin cancer. Here’s a list of what to look out for:

  • any crusty, sores that won’t heal
  • any small lumps that are red, pale or pearlescent in colour
  • new spots, freckles or any moles changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of weeks to months (especially those dark brown to black, red or blue-black in colour)


Make a habit to self-check

In addition to conducting regular self-checks, get your skin checked professionally at least once a year to maximise your chances of detecting melanoma early. Speak to your GP or a skin cancer clinic to learn more.

Download our self-check guide

Melanoma facts and stats

  • Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
  • About two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.
  • Skin cancer is  one of Australia's most common cancers.

Read more on the Cancer Council website

Source: Cancer Council Australia (2017)

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