Reflecting on Melanoma Awareness Month and Understanding Your Risk for Melanoma

30 May 2024 | Allies & Partnerships, Prevention, Science

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Melanoma Awareness Month serves as an important time to reflect on the impact that melanoma has on so many lives. It is also a time to raise awareness of its dangers, who may be at higher risk, and how to prevent and detect it.

Experts estimate that 90% of melanoma diagnoses are caused by exposure to UV rays from the sun or artificial tanning devices. Some melanomas form in places that aren’t exposed to sunlight, indicating that other factors can contribute toward developing melanoma. However, cutaneous melanoma, or melanoma of the skin, is the most common type of melanoma and can be largely prevented with sun safety practices and successfully treated by detecting it early.

The State of Melanoma in 2024

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2024, more than 100,000 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States, and nearly 8300 people will die from this cancer. Melanoma is a very serious diagnosis, and its ability to spread to other parts of the body makes it the deadliest type of skin cancer.

The risk for melanoma increases with age and the average age at diagnosis is 66, but melanoma can still be diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s. In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially young women. However, melanoma is more common overall in men.

For cutaneous melanoma, an important risk factor is exposure to UV rays, either from sun exposure or the use of tanning beds. However, some melanomas develop in sun shielded locations of the body. Acral, mucosal, and uveal melanoma are known as the rare melanoma subtypes and are not believed to be caused by UV exposure.

Although melanoma is more common in people with light skin, hair, and eyes, people with skin of color can develop melanoma. The risk of developing melanoma over a person’s lifetime is about 1 in 33 for White people, 1 in 1000 for Black people, and 1 in 200 for Hispanic people. While melanoma occurs less frequently among People of Color, when it does occur, it is diagnosed at a more advanced stage of disease.

Who is at Higher Risk for Melanoma?

Setting aside time for regular self-checks of your skin is important for people at high risk for melanoma. If you notice anything unusual on your skin, have it examined by your primary care doctor or a dermatologist as soon as possible. People at high risk for melanoma should also consider seeing a dermatologist for a full-body skin check once a year. Those who may be at higher risk for melanoma include:

  • People with fair skin, red or blonde hair and light eyes, although anyone can develop melanoma.
  • People with many moles, especially irregular moles, are at higher risk for melanoma. Irregular moles are called “dysplastic nevi”. They look different than other moles and may have irregular edges, multiple colors, and be larger than other moles. Irregular moles are not always cancerous, but having many of them increases one’s risk for melanoma. People with many moles or irregular moles may need to have their skin examed by a dermatologist once or twice a year.
  • Around 10% of people have a family history of melanoma, which increases their risk. Reasons for increased risk can include a shared history of sun exposure and/or genetic factors. Although certain genetic factors can increase a person’s risk of developing melanoma, not everyone with a genetic risk factor will develop it. If you have a family history of melanoma, your dermatologist can help you decide if talking to a genetic counselor may be helpful.
  • People who have certain jobs are at higher risk for melanoma. These include people who work outside1, airline pilots and cabin crew2, firefighters3, and those who serve in the military4.
  • People who have already had a melanoma or a non-melanoma skin cancer such as basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma are at increased risk for melanoma. Melanoma survivors have an approximately 9-fold increased risk of developing another melanoma compared with the general population.5
  • People who have undergone organ transplantation have an increased risk of melanoma, possibly because they have a weakened immune system caused by immunosuppression to prevent rejection of the transplanted organ6.

Reducing the Risk of Melanoma

You can reduce your risk of melanoma by taking the following steps:

  • Never intentionally expose your skin to the sun. There is no such thing as a 'healthy' tan.
  • Make sunscreen a daily habit. UV radiation can still damage skin even in the winter and on cloudy days. Use broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with SPF of at least 30.
  • Wear sun protective clothing. Protect your body with sun-protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.
  • Avoid peak rays. Seek shade during the mid-day sun, when the sun’s rays are most intense. Learn more about the UV Index.
  • Don’t use tanning beds. Indoor tanning has been shown to increase the risk of melanoma by up to 75%. 
  • Protect children. Children are particularly vulnerable to damage from UV rays and just one bad sunburn in childhood or adolescence can increase a child’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.
  • Get regular skin checks with a dermatologist, especially if you are at high risk.