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Skin cancer and the sun

If you work outdoors in the sun, check how you can protect your skin from skin cancer.

Outdoor workers and workers who are outdoors periodically will be exposed to the sun and the two main hazards this presents: over exposure to UV radiation and heat stress.

Queensland experiences tropical and sub-tropical weather and has a large proportion of sunny days. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is cumulative and can cause sunburn in the short term. Over long periods of time it can lead to eye damage and an increased incidence of skin cancers (including melanoma). Queensland has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. If you live in Queensland, you are at risk of developing skin cancer.

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is a serious disease that can cause disfigurement and death. It is the most common cancer in Australia. Skin cancer is caused by an accumulation of overexposure to ultra violet radiation (UVR) from the sun or artificial sources penetrating the skin and damaging living cells.

Examples of skin cancers

There are three main types of skin cancer named after the type of cell in the skin from which they originate.

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most common but least dangerous. A BCC appears as a lump or scaly area. It may be red, pale or pearly in colour or a sore that won't heal.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) is less common than BCCs and not as dangerous as melanoma but may spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. A melanoma appears as a new spot, or an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes and can be anywhere on the body. If left untreated, the cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. About 1,200 Australians die every year from melanoma.

Sunspots are not a form of skin cancer, but are a warning sign as they occur on the skin which has had enough sun exposure to develop skin cancer. Sunspots are small, scaly patches of skin that generally occur on the arms, face, nose and ears.

Reducing solar UVR exposure is the most effective of preventing all three forms of skin cancer.

UV radiation

It is possible to see sunlight and feel infrared radiation (heat), but not see or feel ultraviolet (UV) radiation. When the daily UV index is three or above it can damage skin or lead to skin cancer. In Queensland, the UV Index is three or higher almost every day, but as UV radiation can vary daily from place to place, a range of precautions must be available. These need to take into account the different risks and work practices at different workplaces.

UV radiation may be high even on cool and cloudy days. It can pass through clouds and still cause damage. It can also pass through loosely woven clothing and can bounce off reflective surfaces such as metal, concrete and water

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issues a national UV index forecast every day, which uses the World Health Organisation's global solar UV index. The BOM's Queensland UV forecast gives daily information on the current UV risk.

Early detection

Nearly all skin cancers can be cured if detected and treated early. Skin cancers rarely hurt and more frequently seen than felt. It is important that you or a medical practitioner regularly check your skin for changes in shape, colour or size of existing freckles, moles or spots. Cancer Council Queensland has information on how to perform skin self-examinations.

Contact a medical practitioner if you are concerned about changes to your skin.