Although rates of skin cancer in young people in England have stabilised during the last two decades, the incidence in older populations has increased substantially, according to new research.

The finding suggests that public health campaigns targeted at children, adolescents and parents may be favourably influencing skin cancer incidence.

The study by Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), published in the new Lancet journal, The Lancet Regional Health - Europe, analysed data on more than 265,000 individuals diagnosed with skin cancer in England over the 38-year period, 1981-2018.

It found the incidence of cutaneous malignant melanoma have increased more than 550% in males and 250% in females since the early 1980s in England.

Skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, with about 16,200 new cases each year. Excessive exposure to UV radiation from the sun (or sunlight) is the main environmental risk factor for developing skin cancer. It is estimated that about 86% of all skin cancers in the UK are attributable to excessive exposure to sunlight. Exposure to artificial sources of UV radiation from indoor tanning beds/lamps is the second most important cause of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer 

Professor Anjum Memon, Chair in Epidemiology and Public Health Medicine at BSMS and lead author of the study, said: "Our study shows that overall there has been a steady and significant increase in rates of skin cancer during the last four decades, which was essentially due to the continually increasing rates in middle (age 35-64 years) and old (65+ years) ages.

"We observed that the steepest increase was in males (more than two-fold that of females) and at old ages. The steeper increase in males is consistent with their relatively greater sun exposure and poor sun-protective behaviour."

The site of skin cancer is most likely associated with the pattern of UV radiation exposure. The researchers saif that the available evidence suggests that the enormous increase in the rates of skin cancer of the trunk (+817% in males, +613% in females) and arms (+750% in males, +518% in females) since the 1980s in England can be mostly attributable to an increasing trend in intermittent high intensity recreational UV radiation exposure due to lifestyle and societal changes.

Professor Malcolm Reed, Professor of Surgical Oncology and Dean of BSMS added: "Considering that the large majority (86%) of skin cancers in the UK and other high-risk populations are preventable, this study has highlighted the potential benefits of effective primary and secondary prevention measures to substantially reduce the burden of the disease. This could have significant benefits for individuals, populations and health services, making skin cancer one of the most preventable forms of cancer on a global scale."