Almost a quarter of people who live in Queensland, Australia, underestimate their risk of melanoma, says new research from QIMR Berghofer, a research institute in Australia. And those who might be at the highest risk are also the worst at predicting their odds of developing deadly skin cancers.

Researchers surveyed almost 42,000 Queenslanders with a self-assessment test and then used the institute's risk prediction tool to reveal the underestimation. The findings were published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.


Basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma are three types of skin cancer. Of the three, melanoma is the least common, but it is more dangerous. Melanoma usually begins in cells called melanocytes. If not caught early, it can rapidly spread to other organs.

The biggest risk factor for developing melanoma is too much exposure to ultraviolet light, from the sun and tanning beds. Ultraviolet light can damage skin cell DNA. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light may result in a higher risk of mutations in skin cells over time.

The study

The team compared the participants’ survey results to a validated melanoma risk predictor tool. The tool calculated a person's risk of developing melanoma based on certain parameters, including age, gender, ethnicity, family history of melanoma and sunscreen use.

The researchers found that 70% of participants had a good idea of their risk. Over 28,500 people correctly identified their risk category or were one category away. Yet nearly 25% had no idea of their risk. Only 10% of the study sample overestimated their risk of melanoma.

The group that misjudged their risk included people with the highest risk of melanoma, especially men older than 65 with fair skin, of European ancestry, with skin sensitive to the sun, with many moles. They were more likely to be university educated and had received skin cancer treatments. Researchers suggested better counseling to empower awareness for the group.

Why knowing risk is important

Underestimating your odds of getting melanoma can be deadly. In 1992, the rate of melanoma per 100,000 people was 14.1%. By 2017, the rate was 22.6%. The death rate has dropped, from 2.7% to 2.3%. In 2017, an estimated 1.25 million people in the U.S. were living with melanoma.

Prevention Tips

Prevention is the best action to avoid melanoma. A post at the Melanoma Research Alliance featured ways to reduce the risk of melanoma:

  • Never expose your skin to the sun intentionally. If you can’t avoid it, use a sunscreen with SPF.
  • Cover up. Long sleeves, hats and sunglasses can protect exposed body parts, like arms and your eyes.
  • Avoid the sun's peak hours. The sun's rays are most intense during the midday hours.
  • Don’t use tanning beds. These devices are associated with a 75% increased risk of melanoma.
  • Protect your children. Kids are particularly prone to ultraviolet radiation. If they have had even one bad sunburn, their risk of cancer might increase when they get older.
  • Watch out for cloudy days. The sun's rays are not limited to clear skies. The radiation can also reach the ground during colder months or overcast days.

The take home

Melanoma may be detected and treated at the early stages. If you want to have your skin checked, consult your family doctor or a dermatologist. Healthcare professionals can provide safety tips, best practices and information about melanoma and possible treatments.