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Sun Spot vs Skin Cancer - 4 Ways to Tell the Difference

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Are you wondering whether your sun spot might be skin cancer?

While some skin spots are completely harmless, any changes to existing spots or the formation of new spots might be a sign of a developing skin cancer. Left untreated, these changes can develop into cancerous spots and skin cancer, including melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

Today, we'll look at what sun spots are and four ways to tell the difference between sun spots and skin cancer.

What are sun spots?

Sun spots are small, flat areas of localised melanin (the skin's natural pigmentation) that form on the skin. They naturally occur over time from long-term exposure to the sun. They most commonly form on the most sun exposed areas of the skin, such as on the head, shoulders, arms and hands.

While melanin is the same pigment that also gives us a tan, frequent and focused exposure to the sun can cause more melanin to form in a small area, causing these little spots to occur. Sun spots are also known as liver spots, age spots or solar lentigines.

There are several reasons that sun spots form and some people are more susceptible than others to getting them.

What causes sun spots?

  • Long term sun exposure. The sun's UV radiation is vital for human health, but frequent exposure can increase the amount of localised melanin, the skin's natural pigment. Tanning beds can also increase melanin and cause a higher risk of developing sun spots.
  • Lighter skin. Having a lighter skin colour puts you at an increased risk of developing sun spots, especially on skin that is frequently exposed to the sun.
  • Family history. Having a family history of sun spots may increase your chance of developing them yourself.
  • Excessive tanning. Exposure to intense sources of UV radiation, such as the midday sun or a tanning bed, can increase the risk of causing pigmentation changes in the skin.

There are a few key differences between a harmless sun spot or a developing skin cancer. In the next section, we'll look at the four main differences between the two.

1. Skin cancers can be raised, sun spots are not

Skin cancers can be bumpy and raised, while sun spots are typically completely flat and smooth. If a sun spot suddenly becomes raised, it may be a sign that it is growing or changing into a potential skin cancer.

Typical sun spot appearance

Sun spots appear as small spots or patches of darker skin. They may be considered unsightly, but they are natural and form more and more with age and long term exposure to the sun.


  • Round spots
  • With age, may join with other sun spots to form patches


  • Dark brown
  • Tan


  • Completely flat
  • Smooth to the touch

2. Change in appearance

Sun spots are usually flat and round and don't change much. Dark spots that begin to develop a scaly area or irregular border can be one of the early stages of skin cancer. A sudden change in appearance, such as the size, shape or colour, can be a warning sign that a sun spot.

3. Pain or discomfort

A skin cancer may suddenly become itchy or painful to the touch. Some carcinomas or melanomas might bleed or form a crust or scab and resemble open sores that do not heal. Sun spots should cause no discomfort and feel like any other part of your skin.

4. Location on the body

Sun spots typically appear on the areas of the body most exposed to the sun. However, skin cancers can appear anywhere and so may escape detection. Knowing your body and being familiar with your normal skin is the best way to detect any changes that may need further checking.

Do sun spots turn into skin cancer?

Some sun spots can be completely harmless, while others can develop skin cancer.

A sun spot that has changed in appearance or the appearance of a new sun spot should be checked by a doctor to determine whether it is at risk of developing into basal cell carcinoma, one of the most common types of skin cancer.

Not sure if it's a sun spot or skin cancer? - Talk to a Doctor

Cancerous sun spots may look a variety of different ways.

It is a good idea to check any existing spot on your skin regularly, as the early signs of skin cancer (including melanoma) may look like a simple sun spot. It is also good to observe moles carefully (especially new moles).

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to have regular skin checks. If you notice any unusual changes in a skin spot or mole you should contact your doctor immediately. Early detection is vital to provide the best chance for it to be effectively treated.

Use the ABCDE rule to check for early warning signs of skin cancers

  • Asymmetrical: One side of the spot is a different shape to the other.
  • Border: Irregular border, including a jagged or sharp outline.
  • Colour: Changes in the colour, especially irregular colour in the same spot. There may be areas of black, grey, white, red or blue.
  • Diameter: Spots larger than 6mm (about the size of a pencil eraser), especially if the spot has grown.
  • Evolving: Any continuous change in any of the above; the shape, border, colour and size of a skin spot.

While the ABCDE rule is a great way to check if skin changes are cause for concern, the only way to be sure is to see your doctor for a skin check.

How to limit sun spots from developing

Sun spots are a natural occurrence, but there are ways you can reduce your chance of developing more. Skin cancer prevention strategies are a great way to protect your skin.

  • Sunscreen. Apply sunscreen on uncovered parts of the skin when going outside. Choose something with a high SPF rating (at least 30+, but 50+ is best) and reapply it every 3–4 hours. Remember to look for waterproof sunscreen if you intend to swim!
  • Covered clothing. Wear long-sleeved clothing and a hat or a rash vest if you go for a swim.
  • Avoid high UV times. Check your local weather service to determine where there are periods of high UV and stick to the shade during these times.

Find a SunDoctors Skin Cancer Clinic near you and book an appointment today.

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