Banner Health
Making healthcare easier

Melanoma Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention

Our skin cancer team is dedicated to the education and prevention of melanoma. Knowing the warning signs of skin cancer can help you notice changes in your skin to assist in preventing the cancer from spreading. If detected early, melanoma treatment can be highly successful.

What Causes Melanoma?

Most often, gene changes that cause melanoma are acquired during a person’s lifetime, not inherited. Skin cancers, like melanoma, have damaged or mutated DNA, which causes the cells to grow uncontrollably. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds can cause mutations in DNA and is a major cause of melanoma. Many other factors also play a role in increasing the risk for melanoma including family history, skin type or color, hair color, freckling and the number of moles on the body. 

What Are Risk Factors for Melanoma?

Anything that increases your chance of getting melanoma is a risk factor. Understanding what causes melanoma and if you’re at risk may help you prevent it or detect it early. 

Not everyone with risk factors gets melanoma. However, talk to your doctor if you have one or more of the following:

  • High UV exposure: Unprotected or excessive sun or ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure increases your risk of melanoma. Using tanning beds, which produce damaging UVA and UVB rays increases your risk of melanoma, especially if you begin before age 30. If you’ve had a history of peeling sunburns, you are at increased risk as well. In fact, getting five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increases your risk of getting melanoma by 80.
  • Fair complexion: People with fair skin, freckles, light hair (red or blond), light eyes (blue or green) or who tend to sunburn easily are at higher risk for melanoma.
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP): This is 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.
  • Skin cancer history: If you’ve had melanoma or other skin cancer in the past, it increases your chance of getting it again.
  • Immune suppression: People with a weakened immune system from medication or medical conditions are at higher risk for melanoma.
  • Moles: Your risk for melanoma increased with the more moles you have and the larger they are. There are two types of moles to be aware of:
    • Congenital melanocytic moles: Present at birth, these moles have a lifetime risk for melanoma of up to 10%. Very large congenital nevi moles are at even greater risk and sometimes surgically removed to eliminate the chance of becoming cancerous 
    • Dysplastic moles: These moles are usually large and have an abnormal shape or color. They can increase a person’s lifetime risk for melanoma to 50% or greater
    • Pregnancy: Melanomas are known to grow during pregnancy so changing moles need to be evaluated.

How to Prevent Melanoma

While not all melanomas can be prevented, you can greatly reduce your risk. Protect yourself from melanoma with these simple and effective tips:

  • Use sunscreen: Even if it’s cloudy, you should use sunscreen and lip balm with at least a 30 sun protection factor (SPF). Reapply sunscreen frequently, especially on children
  • Avoid sun and UV exposure:
    • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants or skirts, dark colors and tightly-woven fabrics to protect skin
    • Wear a full-brimmed hat to shield your head and neck
    • Wear sunglasses that wrap around the sides of the face and have at least 99% UV absorption to protect eyes
    • Seek shade, particularly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV rays are strongest       
  • Don’t use tanning beds: Tanning beds produce damaging UVA and UVB rays that can increase your risk of melanoma 
  • Watch your moles: If you notice changes in size, shape and/or color of a mole, tell your doctor
  • Skin exams: If you have dysplastic nevi moles, you should get very thorough, regular skin exams by a dermatologist
  • Immune system: Having a weakened immune system may increase your risk of getting melanoma and other skin cancers.  HIV infections, AIDS, autoimmune disease, receiving chemotherapy or having an organ transplant may increase your risk for melanoma.

Melanoma is one of the more preventable cancers. But like any cancer, early detection of melanoma is important. Talk to your doctor if you experience any melanoma warning signs or symptoms. 

Request an appointment