About skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in New Zealand. Approximately 500 New Zealanders die of skin cancer every year.

Skin cancer is largely preventable. Over 90% of all skin cancer cases are attributed to excess sun exposure. We encourage all New Zealanders to be SunSmart and to 'slip, slop, slap and wrap.'

It is important to detect skin cancer, especially melanoma, as soon as possible. Early detection generally gives the best chance of successfully treating cancer.

Types of skin cancer

Skin cancer is categorised as melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC). The three most common skin cancers are:

  • Melanoma - the most serious form of skin cancer, causing over two thirds of total skin cancer deaths.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) - easily treated if found early but can be fatal if left untreated.
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) - the most common and least dangerous skin cancer. BCC can be serious, requiring surgery if left untreated.

Causes of skin cancer

The most common cause of skin cancer is too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Overexposure to UV radiation causes the skin permanent damage.

People of all ages and skin colours can be diagnosed with skin cancer but those at a higher risk are people who have:

  • fair skin and red or fair hair
  • fair skin that burns easily no matter what hair colour
  • had one or more severe sunburns—especially in childhood and adolescence
  • used sunbeds, particularly at a young age
  • had previous skin cancers
  • a family history of melanoma (parent, brother, sister or child)
  • large, irregularly shaped and unevenly coloured moles
  • a large number of moles 

Skin cancer rates in New Zealand

The total number of new melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) cases contributes around 80 percent of all new cancers each year.   

There are approximately 67,000 new NMSC cases each year. However, providing an exact figure for the number of NMSC is difficult as, unlike melanoma, they are not required to be recorded.

New Zealand’s skin cancer rates are among the highest in the world. Our high skin cancer rates are due to:

  • high levels of UV radiation in New Zealand during daylight savings months;
  • low ozone levels over New Zealand;
  • our outdoor lifestyle and tendency to ‘seek the sun'; and,
  • a high proportion of people with fair skin.

Prevention of skin cancer

If people protect their skin and avoid sunburn throughout their lives, their risk of melanoma is reduced.

It is important to be SunSmart in the months between September and April, especially between the hours of 10am-4pm when UV radiation levels are very high. In winter it is also important to be SunSmart at high altitudes and around snow or water.

Steps to being SunSmart

Slip - into shade where possible.

Slip - on some sun protective clothing, i.e. a shirt with a collar and long sleeves and trousers or long-legged shorts.

Slop - on broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Apply 20 minutes before you go outside. 

Slap - on a hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.

Wrap - on some close fitting sunglasses.

Symptoms and diagnosis of skin cancer

Most of us have spots on our skin. That’s quite normal. It is important to get to know your skin so that you can notice any changes. Finding skin cancer as early as possible is the key to successful treatment.  

Speak to your health professional if you have a mole, freckle or spot that:

  • is new or changing
  • does not heal
  • that looks different from others around it
  • has changed in size, thickness, shape, colour or has started to bleed.

Take Time to Spot the Difference has photos and descriptions of the three most common skin cancers.

We also have information sheets with more detail to help you:

Treatment of skin cancer

Many skin cancers are treated at the doctor’s surgery and do not need specialist treatment. Others forms of skin cancer may require more specialised surgery. 

For more information on treatment of skin cancer see our cancer information section.  Or call one of our friendly cancer information staff on 0800 CANCER (0800 226 237). 


Last Updated: Tuesday 2 June, 2020