Eye area cancer is on the rise in the UK and excessive sun exposure is thought to be the culprit.

Ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon Dr Sabrina Shah-Desai warns that a number of cancers can affect the delicate eye area, occurring more in fair skinned people than dark skinned.

Such cancers can cause significant tissue damage around the eye, blindness, and can spread into the nasal and orbital cavities (the area behind the eye).

Yet, although too much sun can cause eye area skin cancer, people often forget to protect the thin skin around the eyes from harmful UV rays.

[Read more: Stay safe in the sun: 5 tips to protect yourself from skin cancer]

The different types of eye area skin cancer are:

Basal cell carcinoma

The most common type of skin cancer seen in the eye area is basal cell carcinoma (BCC). This cancer arises from the basal cells in the bottom layer of the epidermis, and is also called a ‘rodent ulcer’ as it grows very slowly. It may appear as a painless nodule or a sore that won’t heal, the skin may be ulcerated, or there may be bleeding, crusting or distortion of the normal eyelid structure and loss of eyelashes. This type of cancer can be very disfiguring.

Squamous cell carcinoma

The second most common skin cancer in the periocular area is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which starts in the squamous cells composing most of the skin’s upper layers (epidermis). This is a more serious form of cancer than BCC as it can spread to other parts of the body. Again, it may appear a painless nodule or a sore that won’t heal, and often looks like scaly red patches, open sores, elevated growths with a central depression, or warts that may crust or bleed. They can become disfiguring and can be deadly.

Sebaceous gland carcinoma

Sebaceous gland carcinoma is a more serious but rare form of skin cancer. It may appear as a recurrent cyst-like bump, persistent eyelid inflammation, chronic red eye or thickening of the eyelid.

Spot it early

Early detection of eye skin cancers can be difficult because the tumours often grow under the skin for years before they’re visible on the surface.

Dr Shah-Desai, who sees more than 300 patients a year with new eye skin basal cell carcinoma, says: “A biopsy is usually required to confirm diagnosis of skin cancer and then prompt, aggressive treatment is necessary because of risk of early spread.

“Early and complete removal of these skin cancers is essential.”

[Read more: Skin cancer: How to check your moles, who is at risk and what to look out for]

Top tips to avoid eye skin cancer

1. Spot early signs - symptoms include sores that won’t heal, loss of eyelashes and a mole that changes shape.

2. Just like protecting your skin from UV rays you need to protect your eyes too, as potential damage includes sunburn on the eye surface, cataracts, macular degeneration and cancer of the eye and surrounding skin.

3. Visit your optician regularly and get your eyes tested every two years.

4. Shield eyes and surrounding skin with UV-protective sunglasses. Select a lens which covers the eyes and surrounding area, and make sure sunglasses don’t slip down and allow UV rays on to your eyes and skin. Remember that fashion and expense don’t guarantee safety.

5. Wear a hat with a brim of at least three inches, which can block half of UVB rays from your eyes and surrounding skin.

How do you protect your eyes? Tell us in the Comments section below.