Melanoma Risk Factors

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

Anything that increases your chance of getting melanoma is considered a risk factor. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, with sunlight being the primary source, and a history of peeling sunburns are primary risk factors for melanoma. It is important to note that artificial sunlight from tanning beds produces the same risk as natural sunlight. In addition, having many moles (nevi) also is believed to increase an individual’s risk of developing melanoma.

Types of Moles

Congenital Melanocytic Mole

These moles, which are present at birth, produce an estimated lifetime risk for melanoma of up to ten percent, depending on size. Individuals with very large congenital nevi are at even greater risk for melanoma. These moles are sometimes surgically removed to eliminate the chance of becoming cancerous. Regular skin exams by a dermatologist coupled with self-exams to watch for changes in mole size, shape and/or color are recommended.  

Dysplastic Mole

These moles are usually large and have an abnormal shape or color. They can increase a person’s lifetime risk for melanoma to 50 percent or greater. For this reason, individuals with dysplastic nevi should receive very thorough, regular skin exams by a dermatologist in addition to regular skin self-exams.      

Other factors to evaluate an individual’s risk for melanoma include:

  • Fair skin, freckling, and light hair - Individuals with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or with fair skin that freckles or burns easily have an increased risk.
  • Family history of melanoma – Having one or more first-degree relatives with melanoma. In a small minority of patients, melanoma is caused by genetics and inherited gene changes.
  • Personal history of melanoma – Having melanoma increases a person’s risk of getting it again.
  • Immune suppression – Individuals who are or have been on medications that suppress the immune system.
  • Gender – The incidence of melanoma in the U.S. is higher in men than women.
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) – A rare, inherited condition resulting from a defect in an enzyme that normally repairs damage to DNA. People with XP can develop many cancers on sun-exposed areas of their skin.

Not everyone with risk factors gets melanoma. If you have any questions or concerns about melanoma causes and risk factors, discuss them with your physician.