Skin cancers are the most common cancers diagnosed in Aotearoa New Zealand.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is cancer that begins on the skin.

Like the rest of your body, the skin is made of tiny 'building blocks' called cells.

Skin cancer begins when these cells are damaged, for example, by the sun, and they become cancerous.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


The three most common types of skin cancer are:

  • BCC - basal cell cancer
    (The most common, usually pink and may bleed or itch / the growth is confined locally, potentially more dangerous on the face).
  • SCC - squamous cell cancer
    (More serious, as they can spread to the lymph glands / often arises from sunspots / are usually scaly and may be tender).
  • Melanoma
    (The most serious, as they can spread via the blood stream throughout the body / can arise anywhere on the body, including areas that have never seen the sun / can be raised or flat, fast or slow growing and rarely, can be pink in colour).

You should regularly check your skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun, so that you will be aware of any changes.

What does skin cancer look like?

Signs of skin cancer include:

  • a crusty sore that is not healing
  • small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour

  • new or existing spots or moles changing in colour, thickness or shape

  • a dry, scaly area that is shiny and pale or bright pink in colour

Having these symptoms does not mean you have skin cancer, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

SCAN™ and SCAN Your Skin™ are registered trademarks and the intellectual property of the Skin Cancer College Australasia Limited (SCCA). They are used here with the permission of and subject to terms and conditions specified by the SCCA. 

Visit the ScanYourSkin website

Tips for talking to your doctor

  • make a list of what you are feeling and how often it happens, including as much detail as possible
  • think about your family/whānau history of cancer and tell your doctor
  • go back to your doctor if you don't feel better, even if tests show you don't have a problem - you can ask for a second opinion if you want one 
  • take a family/whānau member or friend with you to the appointment for support

What causes skin cancer?

Over 90% of skin cancer is caused by too much exposure to UV rays from the sun. 

People of all ages and skin colours can be diagnosed with skin cancer, but some things increase your risk of getting skin cancer.

Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • had skin cancer before
  • family/whānau members with skin cancer
  • a skin type that sunburns easily
  • red, blonde or light-coloured hair
  • many moles or larger moles
  • used sunbeds/tanning beds (solariums)
  • spent a lot of time in the sun unprotected
Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have health professionals to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: March 2, 2023