Skin cancer: Incidence and risk factors

Part of our GP resources on tumour types, here we focus on incidence and risk factors of skin cancer, including the rate of people being diagnosis and risk of different skin types


  • Around 15,400 people are diagnosed with melanoma in the UK each year.
  • The incidence of malignant melanoma in Britain has risen faster than any other common cancer. Over the last decade, the number of people diagnosed with melanoma in the UK has increased by almost half.
  • Melanoma is the 5th most common cancer in the UK.
  • 51% of melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK are in males (2% of all male cancer deaths), and 49% are in females (1% of all female cancer deaths).
  • Skin cancer becomes more common with age.
  • Rates of malignant melanoma are increasing rapidly. Since 1997, there has been an increase of: 155% for over 55s and 63% for under 55s

Risk factors

Significant sun exposure in childhood is the single most important lifestyle risk factor.

Experience of blistering sunburn during childhood/young adulthood doubles the chance of developing melanoma in later life.

Other factors that increase melanoma risk include:

  • A history of blistering sunburn: patients with a history of sunburn are more than twice as likely to get melanoma. The higher the number of sunburns, the greater the risk
  • Use of sunbeds: the risk is highest for patients who have used a sunbed aged under 35 but use at any age will increase the risk due to the increased exposure to UV light.
  • Patients with fair skin, freckling and light hair (skin type I and II) are more susceptible to skin cancer (see below) 
  • Presence of atypical/dysplastic nevi including irregular moles that are >5mm diameter with variegate pigmentation
  • Previous non-melanoma skin cancer
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Immun0 suppression for any reason e.g. transplant patient, HIV Skin types

Skin types

Skin type Susceptibility to sun burn Skin colour Ethnicity Facultative tanning ability Susceptibility to skin cancer
I High White

Very light


Very poor High
II High White


Lignt Asian

Poor High
III Moderate White

Tan Caucasian

Light Hispanic

Good  Moderate
IV Low Olive


Deeply tanned Caucasian

Medium Asian

Very good Low
V Very low Brown


Native American 

Light African-American 

Very good Very low
VI Very low Black African-American Very good Very low