8 Risk Factors for Melanoma

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A cancer risk factor is anything that increases your chances of getting that cancer. Risk factors are not causes of cancer. You could have lots of risk factors and never get cancer. Or, you might have no known risk factors and still get cancer.

That's true with all forms of cancer, including melanoma. But, melanoma is a potentially deadly type of skin cancer. That makes it important to know about risk factors. You can avoid some of them simply by changing a few lifestyle habits. That might save your life.

The main risk factors for melanoma are:

  1. Sun exposure. Sunlight has ultraviolet (UV) rays that can damage the DNA in your skin cells. This in turn raises your risk of developing melanoma. Living in an area where the sun shines all year raises your risk. So does living at a high altitude. People who had frequent sunburns as a child also have a greater risk.

  2. Use of tanning beds. Tanning your skin in a tanning bed or with a sun lamp damages your skin cell DNA. Using tanning lights often, especially before age 30, is a melanoma risk factor.

  3. Moles. These are brown or black spots on your skin. Most moles do not become melanoma. However, having more than 50 moles puts you at greater risk. Moles that you were born with and moles that have unusual shapes, sizes or colors are more likely than others to become melanoma.

  4. Fair skin. Having light skin that burns easily can increase your risk. So can having red hair, freckles or blue eyes.

  5. Family history of melanoma. Having a parent, sibling or child with melanoma places you at 2 to 3 times the risk of someone who doesn't have a close relative with this cancer.

  6. Previous skin cancer. If you've had any type of skin cancer in the past, you are at increased risk for melanoma. That includes melanoma. If you've had it once, you're at risk of having it again.

  7. Weakened immune system. The immune system is the system that defends your body against germs and disease. But, some diseases can make your immune system weak. HIV is an example. Also, medication you need to take for conditions can suppress your immune system. In either case, this raises your risk of developing melanoma.

  8. Age. You can get melanoma at any age, but being older than 50 increases your risk.

What You Can Do

Some risk factors can't be changed. You can’t change your age or family history, for instance. But, you can reduce other ones.

To lower your risk of melanoma:

  • Don't expose your skin to the sun for long periods of time. That's especially important between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

  • Use sunscreen or wear sun-protective clothing when you're outside in the sun.
  • Skip tanning beds and lamps.
  • Check your skin frequently. Look for changes in any moles or any new moles. Tell your doctor right away if you spot anything.

  • Get regular skin checkups from a dermatologist. This is especially important if you have risk factors like many moles or a family history of skin cancer.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 7
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. What Are the Risk Factors for Melanoma Skin Cancer? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/skincancer-melanoma/detailedguide/melanoma-skin-cancer-risk-factors

  2. Melanoma: Risk Factors and Prevention. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/melanoma/risk-factors-and-prevention

  3. Am I at Risk for Melanoma? Melanoma Research Foundation. http://www.melanoma.org/understand-melanoma/preventing-melanoma/melanoma-risk-factors