How to check if you have skin cancer: Symptoms and signs to look out for

Skin cancer diagnoses in the UK hit record levels of 17,545 a year between 2017-19

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith
Monday 04 September 2023 11:40 BST
Sunburn can increase the risk of developing melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer
Sunburn can increase the risk of developing melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer (Reuters)

It is the most common form of cancer in Britain and kills around 2,100 people in the UK each year, but still, a “shocking” number of people remain unaware of the dangers of skin cancer, its links to sunburn, and how to spot the signs of this deadly disease.

An overwhelming 77 per cent of people would not recognise signs of melanoma – a malignant skin cancer tumour – despite the majority of Britons worrying about skin cancer, a new study by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) has found.

It comes as Cancer Research UK has warned that skin cancer cases are set to rise by half by 2040, with rocketing diagnoses driven by the “cheap package holiday” boom of the 1960s.

Skin cancer diagnoses hit record levels of 17,545 a year between 2017-19 and based on the charity’s predictions, that figure is set to rise to 26,531 each year by 2040.

There are two types of skin cancer; melanoma, the deadliest form of which around 13,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the UK, and non-melanoma, of which there are more than 100,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

The risk of melanoma is doubled if a person has had five or more sunburns at any age, the Skin Care Foundation states, but adds that experiencing just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing a melanoma later in life.

Non-melanoma comes in two most common forms: basal cell carcinoma, which accounts for about 75 per cent of skin cancers, and squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for about 20 per cent. It is mainly caused by overexposure to UV light.

A boom in cheap holidays is said to have contributed to a predicted rise in skin cancer cases
A boom in cheap holidays is said to have contributed to a predicted rise in skin cancer cases (PA)

But despite the serious risks of cancer posed from sunburn, nearly three-quarters of people surveyed by BAD admitted to having been burned in the past year alone, while 40 per cent of people were found to never check themselves for signs of cancer.

Here is how to check for possible signs of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer:


  • The NHS states the first signs of a melanoma is often a new mole, or a change in the appearance of an existing mole.
  • Moles are usually round or oval, with a smooth edge, which is not bigger than 6mm in diameter. Any change in size, shape, or colour, any bleeding, crustiness or itchiness, or how painful a mole is should be shown to a doctor.
  • The NHS has an ABCDE checklist to help people tell the difference between a normal mole and a melanoma:
  • Asymmetrical – melanomas have two very different halves and are an irregular shape.
  • Border – melanomas have a notched or ragged border.
  • Colours – melanomas will be a mix of two or more colours.
  • Diameter – melanomas are larger than 6mm (1/4 inch) in diameter.
  • Enlargement or elevation – a mole that changes size over time is more likely to be a melanoma.


  • Non-melanoma usually appears as a lump or discoloured patch of skin that does not heal. If a person experiences on of these patches that do not heal after four weeks, they should see their GP.
  • Signs of Basal cell carcinoma can look like a small red or pink lump, though it can also appear as a pearly-white or waxy-looking lump, or it can also appear as a red or scaly patch of skin.
  • The lump, whether pink or white, will grow slowly and can become crusty or bleed, or become a painless ulcer.
  • Signs of Squamous cell carcinoma are the appearance of a firm pink lump. This lump could have a flat, scaly or crusted surface, often bleeds easily and feels tender to touch and can also become a painless ulcer.

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