It also shows that men are significantly less able to identify changes to the skin which should prompt medical attention.
The figures come as data from Nuffield Health’s UK hospitals show a 16 per cent rise in skin cancer cases among those aged 16 to 34 since 2007.
The figures from a survey of 2086 people in the UK by YouGov for Nuffield Health, the UK’s largest health charity, show that less than half of people living in the South East believe their personal risk of skin cancer to be low or non existent.
Just over half said they thought teenagers and young adults (aged 16-24) are at risk, despite skin cancer being the second most common cancer in this age group. Experts say confusion surrounds a disease which killed more than 2,700 people last year in the UK.
Less than half (45 per cent) thought those aged 55-64 are at risk, despite recent figures showing rates of melanoma have trebled in the over 50s in the past 30 years.
Only four in ten (40 per cent) knew those aged 65+ are at risk – the highest risk group for late stage melanoma.
People in the region also struggle to recognise signs that should trigger a visit to a doctor. Although just over two thirds (61 per cent) of people in the South East said they were confident they could identify potentially harmful symptoms, less than a third were able to recognise five classic symptoms. Nationally, men were significantly less able to do so – just over a quarter compared to four in ten women.
A sun tan is still seen as a sign of health and wellbeing in the region, with nearly half (46 per cent) saying they look healthier and a fifth (20 per cent) saying they look more attractive.
Experts say repeated sunburn significantly increases the risk of skin cancer later in life. Despite this, over a third of people in the South East say they burn once a year or more, while nearly one in six of those with school aged children say their children burn once a year or more often.
More than one in ten people admitted to ‘binge sunbathing’, saying they take every possible opportunity to spend time in the sun.
Almost a quarter in the region say they never use sun cream in the UK - one of the highest figures regionally in Britain - while around a quarter (28 per cent) use it only occasionally on sunny days but not all.
One in five said it was too much hassle to use more frequently, while for others it is too expensive. Nearly one in five with school aged children said they don’t use it on their children because their children don’t want to use it.
Consultant plastic surgeon Paul Banwell said: “There is an inherent naivety among people in the UK about the risks of skin cancer.
“Because we live in a climate with relatively little sunshine and lots of rain people believe they are not at risk, but this is a fallacy.
“These are often the people who fail to protect themselves in the sun, yet who later on in life are utterly shocked to discover they are suffering the consequences.
“The biggest predictor for skin cancer later in life is sun burn when you are young; whether it materialises in your early 20s or in your 60s.
“Sadly, sun awareness and skin checks are not part of our education, and this needs to be addressed as a priority”