The role of sun exposure in development of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas among different populations from south Europe was investigated. Between 1989 and 1993 we interviewed incident cases and a random population sample of controls from five centres where a cancer registry was operating, whereas we selected a sample of hospital-based cases and controls from the other three centres. We gathered information on life-long exposure to sunlight during different activities. Results are analysed for 1549 basal cell carcinoma (BCC) cases and 228 squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) cases compared with 1795 controls. We observed a statistically significant increase of risk of SCC with increasing sun exposure beyond a threshold of 70,000 cumulated hours of exposure in a lifetime. Sun exposures during work and holidays were, however, inversely correlated. Odds ratios (ORs) of SCC were up to eight or nine times the reference for the highest exposures (200,000 cumulated hours or more). BCC exhibited a 2-fold increase of risk for lower exposure (8000-10,000 cumulated hours in a lifetime) with a plateau and a slight decrease of risk for the highest exposures (100,000 cumulated hours or more). Outdoor work showed a significantly increased risk of SCC (OR 1.6 for more than 54,000 cumulated hours of exposure in a lifetime), whereas recreational activities such as sun exposure during holidays at the beach (OR 1.6 for more than 2600 cumulated hours of exposure in a lifetime) or during water sports (OR 1.6 for more than 2600 cumulated hours of exposure in a lifetime) were associated with an increased risk of BCC. Risk patterns were different in poor or good tanners with a significant risk trend for good tanners, whereas poor tanners were on a plateau of increased risk at any level of exposure. Solar radiation is associated with a risk of BCC even for relatively short periods of exposure such as during holidays and sports, whereas SCC develops later if exposure continues. The skin's ability to tan modulates the risk of BCC; subjects who tan poorly have a steady risk increase, whereas people who tan easily develop cancer only after prolonged exposures.