Melanoma Risks and Prevention

Risk factors increase a person’s chance of getting cancer. Risk factors for developing melanoma are both environmental and genetic.

Risk factors for melanoma include:

Sun exposure

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause melanoma. Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun appears more closely associated with melanoma but newer information also suggests that ultraviolet A (UVA) may also play a role in the development of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.

People who live in areas with bright sunlight year-round or at high altitudes have a higher risk of developing skin cancer, as do those who spend a lot of time outside during the midday hours.

Risk of melanoma is higher in individuals who have a tendency to burn rather than tan, and who have had multiple, severe, blistering sunburns, particularly in childhood.

Tanning salons

People who use tanning beds, tanning parlors, or sun lamps have an increased risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer. There is a growing epidemic of melanoma in young women, in part related to use of tanning beds.


People with many moles or unusual moles called dysplastic nevi or atypical moles (flat, large moles that have irregular color and shape) have a higher risk of developing melanoma.

Approximately half of those diagnosed with melanoma have dysplastic nevi. People with an increased number of moles are also at increased risk for melanoma.

Fair skin

People with fair complexion, blond or red hair, blue eyes and freckles are at increased risk for developing melanoma.

Family history

Approximately 10 percent of people with melanoma have a family history of the melanoma. Therefore, it is recommended that close relatives (parents, brothers and sisters, and children) of a person with melanoma routinely have their skin examined.

Hereditary melanoma can be related to changes in two genes (p16 /CDKN2A and CDK4) that may lead to melanoma. However, only a small number of families with melanoma have changes in these genes. Other genes that predispose to melanoma include BRCA1 and 2 and BAP1.

Learn more about genes and how genetic mutations affect melanoma

Personal history

People who have had one melanoma have an increased risk of developing additional new melanomas; People who have had basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer also have an increased risk of developing melanoma.

Race or ethnicity

Melanoma rates are more than 10 times higher in white people than black people; however, it is important to note that melanoma can occur in a person of any race or ethnicity.

Other factors

People who have weakened immune systems or use certain medications that suppress immune function have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

While these factors may increase the risk of melanoma, it is also important to remember that anyone can get skin cancer, even dark skinned people of color.

It’s also important to remember that having one or more risk factor does not mean that you will get the disease.

Melanoma Risk Prevention

When it comes to preventing and detecting melanoma, it pays to be a little more mindful and take the extra precautions. The best approach to melanoma is prevention—and the most effective treatment is to detect melanoma early.

The best prevention methods for melanoma and other skin cancers is to avoid sun exposure during peak hours (10 am to 4 pm) and wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more every day, even in winter.

More prevention methods include:

  • Checking your skin once a month
  • Seeing a dermatologist annually
  • Using sunscreen—enough, the right kind and often enough—to be effective. To be effective, sunscreens should be broad spectrum, at least SPF 30 and waterproof. Sunscreen needs to be applied to all exposed areas of the skin and repeated approximately every two hours or after swimming
  • Wearing protective clothing including hats, shirts pants and sunglasses
  • Avoiding tanning beds

Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma

More than 80 percent of all melanomas are detected by either the patient themselves or their partner, which makes awareness of risk factors and warning signs very important.

Moles that change in size, color, border or shape, or begin to itch or sting can be warning signs of melanoma and should be carefully monitored by a physician. Most melanomas are dark brown or black in color, but they can also be pink or have a blue color. 

Bleeding can be a sign of a more advanced melanoma.

The most frequent location for melanoma is on the trunk, arms, and legs. Early detection and recognition of melanoma is the key to improving overall survival and the better chance for successful treatment. Self-skin examination of a person’s skin will help to find melanoma early when the disease is highly curable.

Clinicians use an ABCDE system to describe “worrisome” moles or pigmented lesions:

  • A is for asymmetry. If you could fold the mole over on itself, the two halves would not be the same size or shape.
  • B is for borders. Melanomas often have very irregular borders, can be ragged or notched.
  • C is for color. Melanomas are often darker than other moles and have different colors in different parts of the mole. Shades of black, brown, or pink can be seen.
  • D is for diameter. Melanomas are often larger than 5 mm ( ¼ inch, the size of a pencil eraser). However, melanomas can be smaller when first detected.
  • E is for evolving. Melanomas often change their size or appearance. A mole that has change in size, shape or appearance or growing where the skin appeared normal. 

A health care provider should be consulted if you find a growth that matches any of the features on the above list, a new growth, a suspicious change in an existing more or spot. The “ugly duckling” sign is recognizing a pigmented lesion that looks different from other surrounding skin lesions.