Ultraviolet radiation and the INTERSUN Programme

Health effects of UV radiation


Skin cancers

Non-melanoma skin cancers

Basal cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma

Non-melanoma skin cancers comprise basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. These are rarely lethal but surgical treatment is painful and often disfiguring. The temporal trends of the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers are difficult to determine, because reliable registration of these cancers has not been achieved. However, specific studies carried out in Australia, Canada and the United States, indicate that between the 1960s and the 1980s the prevalence of non-melanoma skin cancers increased by a factor of more than two.

The risk of non-melanoma skin cancers has been examined with respect to personal exposure, and the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Non-melanoma skin cancers are most frequent on parts of the body that are commonly exposed to the sun such as ears, face, neck and forearms. This implies that long-term, repeated UV radiation exposure is a major causal factor.
  • Within some countries there is a clear relationship between increasing incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers with decreasing latitude, i.e. higher UV radiation levels.

Malignant melanoma

Malignant melanoma, although far less prevalent than non-melanoma skin cancers, is the major cause of death from skin cancer and is more likely to be reported and accurately diagnosed than non-melanoma skin cancers. Since the early 1970s, malignant melanoma incidence has increased significantly, for example an average 4 per cent every year in the United States. A large number of studies indicate that the risk of malignant melanoma correlates with genetic and personal characteristics, and a person’s UV exposure behaviour. The following is a summary of the main human risk factors: Malignant Melanoma

Malignant melanoma

  • A large number of atypical nevi (moles) is the strongest risk factor for malignant melanoma in fair-skinned populations.
  • Malignant melanoma is more common among people with a pale complexion, blue eyes, and red or fair hair. Experimental studies have demonstrated a lower minimum erythema dose and more prolonged erythema in melanoma patients than in controls.
  • High, intermittent exposure to solar UV appears to be a significant risk factor for the development of malignant melanoma.
  • The incidence of malignant melanoma in white populations generally increases with decreasing latitude, with the highest recorded incidence occurring in Australia, where the annual rates are 10 and over 20 times the rates in Europe for women and men respectively.
  • Several epidemiological studies support a positive association with history of sunburn, particularly sunburn at an early age.
  • The role of cumulative sun exposure in the development of malignant melanoma is equivocal. However, malignant melanoma risk is higher in people with a history of non-melanoma skin cancers and of solar keratoses, both of which are indicators of cumulative UV exposure.
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