Background: Population-based figures on skin cancer are essential for a realistic assessment of the personal disease burden, prevention modes and the need for caring. The Robert Koch Institute in Germany estimates the incidence of melanoma skin cancer as seven cases in 100 000 persons (age-standardized by the European standard rate). Population-based studies presumably show higher incidence rates of 10-16 cases in 100 000 persons. Few data exist for non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) as this is not systematically registered in Germany. Objectives: To present the first population-based results from the Schleswig-Holstein (Germany) Cancer Registry on incidence, stage distribution, clinical types and localization of skin cancer and to compare the results with other studies. Methods: The Cancer Registry of the Bundesland Schleswig-Holstein with 3500 registering institutions, 100 of which are dermatological institutions, investigates all notifiable incident cancer cases according to international standards. From the recorded data all melanoma and NMSC cases were identified and evaluated. Results: Between 1998 and 2001, 1784 malignant melanoma (MM) and 12 956 NMSC cases underwent diagnostic and analytical evaluation. For MM, age-standardized incidence rates were 12.3 and 14.8 in 100 000 men and women, respectively, and the mean age of men was greater than that of women (56.6 vs. 54.9 years, P < 0.05). Superficial spreading melanoma was the most frequent clinical type (39.1%). The tumours were predominantly located on the trunk in men (46.8%) in contrast to leg and hip in women (39.5%). For NMSC, the age-standardized incidence rates were 100.2 and 72.6 in 100 000 men and women, respectively. More than 80% of all tumours were basal cell carcinoma. Conclusions: The first population-based data from Schleswig-Holstein on the characteristics (age, sex, histological subtypes, localization and stage) of skin tumours agree well with the existing literature and may thus be regarded as representative. However, markedly higher incidences for MM and NMSC in the north of Germany compared with other parts of the country were observed. As the incidence rates from the north of Germany fit well into the European geographical pattern, we assume no regional increase. Therefore, the official German estimates on cutaneous tumours may largely depend on regional factors and may not be regarded as representative for all regions in Germany.