Men and women of all ages and races can develop melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is thought to be the biggest risk factor for most melanomas. The main source of UV light is the sun, although tanning lamps also emit high levels of UV light. Aside from UV radiation, there are several other factors that increase the chances that a person will develop melanoma. It is important to be aware of these risk factors, as melanoma is most treatable when detected in its early stages.

Risk factors for melanoma include:

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Exposure to UV radiation from the sun and from tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma.

Sunburns. Blistering caused by overexposure to the sun, especially at a young age, can double a person’s chances of developing melanoma. Always apply sunscreen generously and use caution in the sun.

Fair skin and freckles. Melanoma occurs more frequently in people with fair skin. Freckles also mark a mild increase in risk.

Light hair and eye color. The risk of melanoma is higher for people with blue eyes and those who have blond or red hair.

A large number of ordinary moles. People who have more than 50 moles are at an increased risk of developing melanoma.

Abnormal moles. Moles that are larger than normal, have several shades of pigment, or have fuzzy or indistinct edges are more likely to become cancerous than ordinary moles.

Family history Melanoma can sometimes run in families; having two or more close family members who have melanoma is a strong risk factor.

Non-melanoma skin cancer. People who have other kinds of skin cancer are at a higher risk for developing melanoma.

Examining Your Skin

Get a professional skin examination from a dermatologist once a year, and learn how to perform a monthly skin self-examination. Skin self-exams do not require any special medical equipment. All you need are your eyes, a mirror, and the knowledge of what to look for. Here are some tips for performing a skin self-examination:

  • Perform skin self-examinations in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a handheld mirror for hard-to-see places. The best time to do a skin self-exam is after a shower or bath.

  • Learn the pattern of your moles, freckles, or other birthmarks so that you will notice any changes.

  • Look for new growths, spots, bumps, or sores that do not heal normally.

  • Don’t forget hard-to-see areas of your body such as your head, the underside of your arms, the backs of your legs, and between your toes.

Melanoma Support

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with melanoma? Call the Melanoma Helpline at 1-877-MRF-6460 (673-6460) for reliable information, emotional support and helpful resources. The helpline is a partnership of CancerCare and the Melanoma Research Foundation (

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Last updated February 26, 2016

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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