Melanoma: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2023

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing melanoma. Use the menu to see other pages.

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors can influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing melanoma:

  • Sun exposure. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun plays a major role in the development of skin cancer. People who live at high altitudes or in areas with bright sunlight year-round have a higher risk of developing skin cancer. People who spend a lot of time outside during the midday hours also have a higher risk. Avoid recreational sun tanning outdoors to reduce the risk of skin cancer. (see below from more on Prevention.)

    Exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun appears more closely associated with melanoma, but newer information suggests that ultraviolet A (UVA) may also play a role in the development of melanoma, as well as the development of basal and squamous cell skin cancers. While UVB radiation causes sunburn and does not penetrate through car windows or other types of glass, UVA is able to pass through glass and may cause aging and wrinkling of the skin in addition to skin cancer. Therefore, it is important to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB radiation (see “Prevention” below.)

  • Indoor tanning. People who use tanning beds, tanning parlors, or sun lamps have an increased risk of developing all types of skin cancer. Using indoor tanning devices is strongly discouraged.

  • Moles. People with many moles or unusual moles called dysplastic nevi or atypical moles have a higher risk of developing melanoma. Dysplastic nevi are large moles that have irregular color and shape. A doctor may recommend regular photography of the skin to closely watch the skin of people with many moles.

  • Fair skin. People with fair complexion, blond or red hair, blue eyes, and freckles are at increased risk for developing melanoma. This risk is also higher for people whose skin has a tendency to burn rather than tan.

  • Family history. About 10% of people with melanoma have a family history of the disease. If a person has a close relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) who has been diagnosed with melanoma, that person's individual risk of developing melanoma is 2 to 3 times higher than the average risk. This risk increases if several family members who live in different locations have been diagnosed with melanoma. Therefore, it is recommended that close relatives of a person with melanoma routinely have their skin examined.

  • Familial melanoma. Although changes, called mutations, in specific genes, such as CDKN2A, CDK4, P53, and MITF, have been identified that may lead to melanoma, these are rare. Only a very small number of families with a history of melanoma actually pass these genetic mutations from generation to generation. Scientists are looking for other genes and environmental factors that might affect a person’s risk of developing melanoma and other cancers. Learn more about familial melanoma.

  • Other inherited conditions. People with specific inherited genetic conditions, including xeroderma pigmentosum, retinoblastoma, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Werner syndrome, and certain hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndromes, have an increased risk of developing melanoma.

  • Previous skin cancer. People who have already had a melanoma have an increased risk of developing other, new melanomas. People who have had basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer also have an increased risk of developing melanoma. Therefore, people who have had previous skin cancer need ongoing follow-up care to watch for additional cancers. See the Follow-up Care section for more information.

  • Race or ethnicity. Melanoma rates are about 20 times higher in White people than in Black people. However, a person of any race, ethnicity, or skin color can develop melanoma.

  • Age. The median age at which people are diagnosed with melanoma is just above 50 years old. Median is the midpoint, which means that about half of people with melanoma are diagnosed when they are younger than 50 and about half are diagnosed when they are older than 50. Melanoma occurs in young adults more often than in many other types of cancer.

  • Weakened or suppressed immune system. People who have a weakened immune system or use certain medications that suppress immune function have a higher risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma.

Are there ways to prevent melanoma?

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause melanoma, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent melanoma, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

Reducing exposure to UV radiation may significantly lower the risk of developing skin cancer. This means reducing exposure to the sun and avoiding the use of indoor tanning devices. This is important for people of all ages and is especially important for people who have other risk factors for melanoma (see above).

Sun damage builds up over time, so it is important to take the following steps to reduce sun exposure and avoid sunburn:

  • Limit or avoid direct exposure to the sun between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM.

  • Wear sun-protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck, and ears. Clothes made from fabric labeled with UV protection factor (UPF) may provide better protection. UV-protective sunglasses are also recommended.

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen throughout the year that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Reapply at least 1 ounce of sunscreen to your entire body every 2 hours or every hour after heavy perspiration or after being in the water.

  • Avoid recreational outdoor sunbathing, including to try to get a "base tan."

  • Do not use sun lamps, tanning devices, or tanning salons.

  • Examine your skin regularly. This should include examinations by a health care professional, as well as self-examinations. Learn more about melanoma screening and what to expect during a skin cancer screening.

Learn more about protecting your skin from the sun.

Getting less exposure to the sun may reduce your body’s production of vitamin D. People need different amounts of time in the sun based on their skin color, where they live, and other factors to produce enough vitamin D. People with limited sun exposure should talk with their doctor about how to include good sources of vitamin D in their diet, including whether they should use supplements. Your levels of vitamin D can be checked with a simple blood test.

Learn more about cancer prevention and healthy living.

The next section in this guide is Screening. It describes the early warning signs of melanoma and how to perform a self-examination. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.