Melanoma Skin Cancer Risk Factors & Prevention

Certain factors may put you at a higher risk of developing melanoma. While some of these factors can be controlled, others can not. However, the more you know about the risks associated with melanoma, the more proactive you can be protecting yourself. 

Keep in mind that risk factors don’t tell us everything. Just because you have a risk factor (or factors) does not guarantee that you will develop melanoma. Likewise, some people who develop melanoma or another type of skin cancer may not have known risk factors. Regardless, it can be wise to err on the side of caution when it comes to your skin to lower your overall risk.

Risk Factors Associated With Melanoma

The primary risk factor for melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight and tanning beds. The more UV radiation you are exposed to, the higher your chances of developing skin cancer. 

Other factors that may increase your risk of developing melanoma include:

  • Fair skin. While melanoma can develop in people with darker complexions, it is more likely to occur in individuals with less pigment (melanin).
  • A history of sunburn. One or more severe, blistering sunburns can increase your risk of melanoma.
  • Physical location. People living closer to the earth’s equator or at a higher elevation are exposed to higher amounts of UV radiation, increasing the risk of melanoma. 
  • Moles. Having more than 50 ordinary moles on your body or having an unusual type of mole (called dysplastic nevi) increases the risk of melanoma. 
  • A family history of melanoma. If a close relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling has had melanoma, you have a higher chance of developing a melanoma.
  • Weakened immune system. People with weakened immune systems have an increased risk of melanoma and other skin cancers. 

Melanoma Prevention

Since exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the primary risk factor for developing melanoma, prevention starts there. Do all you can to protect yourself from UV rays all year round, not just during the summer. Even on cloudy or hazy days, UV rays can reach your skin. Furthermore, UV rays can reach your skin by reflecting off surfaces, including water, cement, sand, and snow.

The most hazardous hours of the day for UV exposure are between 10 am and 4 pm, so it may be wise to practice extra caution during that time. In North America, UV rays from sunlight are the most intense during late spring and early summer.

The following are additional tips that can reduce your risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer:

  • Wear sunscreen. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even on cloudy days. Apply sunscreen generously and reapply every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
  • Cover up. The less skin exposed, the better. Wearing clothing that covers your arms and legs and a broad-brimmed hat can provide much-needed protection. Sunglasses are also helpful. Look for those that block both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Avoid tanning lamps and beds. Tanning lamps and beds emit UV rays and can increase your risk of skin cancer.
  • Become familiar with your skin. The more familiar you are with your skin, the more likely you’ll notice any abnormalities. Take time to examine your skin often for new skin growths or changes in existing moles, freckles, bumps, and birthmarks. In addition to checking the obvious places like your face, arms, legs, neck, ears, and scalp, check those not-so-obvious areas that don’t necessarily get full sun-exposure. Including places such as your genital area, between your buttocks, the soles of your feet, and even the spaces between your toes.