Understand Melanoma

Preventing Melanoma

Can Melanoma Be Prevented?

Research suggests that nearly 90% of cutaneous melanomas are related to UV exposure. Therefore, most melanomas are thought to be preventable. Melanoma prevention is best approached in two ways:

  1. Reducing your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation
  2. Detecting melanoma early

Primary Prevention

Primary prevention is defined as reducing and limiting exposure to UV radiation. This includes UV from sunlight and artificial sources, such as tanning beds.

How can I reduce my UV exposure?

The MRF recommends a comprehensive approach to reducing UV exposure. None of these measures are more important than the other, so use these tips whenever possible:

1. Use sunscreen year-round – even on cloudy days

Use a broad spectrum SPF sunscreen of at least 30. “Broad spectrum” means that the sunscreen protects against both types of UV radiation – UVA and UVB. Each time you apply, use approximately one ounce (a shot-glassful) and apply it 15 minutes before sun exposure – then reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating. Remember, sunscreen is just one component of sun safety and just because you’re wearing sunscreen, doesn’t mean you can spend unlimited time in the sun.

Sunscreen Postcard


Is sunscreen dangerous? 

NO! Over the years, a few controversies have developed regarding the safety of sunscreen. The safety of sunscreens has been studied in labs and on live subjects by reputable research scientists for many years. The results of these studies provide overwhelming evidence that sunscreens are safe and effective. No current published data has demonstrated adverse health effects on humans from the regular use of sunscreen.

Is it true that if I use sunscreen I won’t get enough vitamin D?

NO! Large epidemiologic studies reflecting real life conditions prove clearly that sunscreen use does not cause vitamin D deficiencies. Adequate vitamin D can be obtained safely and cheaply through food and dietary supplements without the risks associated with overexposure to UV radiation. Vitamin D is produced in the skin after sun exposure and is known to improve bone health and reduce the risk of certain cancers. Getting an adequate amount of vitamin D is dependent on these three tactics: 1) eating foods that contain vitamin D, 2) taking a vitamin D supplement, and 3) getting a small amount of sun exposure. You do NOT need to tan or burn your skin to produce vitamin D. If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, speak with your doctor.

I heard that sunscreen can actually cause melanoma…is that true?

NO! In 2011, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published a randomized, clinical study of over 1,600 people showing that regular sunscreen use reduced the incidence of melanoma by 50-73%! When used as directed with other sun protection measures, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher helps prevent sunburn and reduces the risk of early skin aging and skin cancer (melanoma and squamous cell carcinomas) associated with UV radiation. Several scientific research studies disprove claims that sunscreen use increases melanoma risk. These comprehensive assessments of thousands of people found that sunscreen use does not increase one’s risk of developing melanoma.


2. Wear protective clothing

Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, whenever possible.

3. Seek shade

The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

4. Use extra caution near reflective environments

Water, snow and sand reflect and magnify the damaging rays of the sun, increasing your chance of sunburn.

5. Do not burn

Severe sunburns, especially during childhood, increase your risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancer. Just one blistering sunburn can double your chances of developing melanoma later in life.

6. Avoid intentional tanning and indoor tanning beds

Truth About Tanning Postcard

Research indicates that just one blistering sunburn can double your chances of developing melanoma later in life. In addition, using tanning beds before age 30 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent. Occasional use of tanning beds triples your chances. Research also suggests a strong dose-response relationship – meaning the more sessions, hours and years spent tanning, the higher the risk of developing melanoma and other types of skin cancer.

Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old. Melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in women 25-30 years old and the second leading cause of cancer death in women 30-35 years old.

The Truth about Tanning…There is NO Such Thing as a “Safe Tan”. 

Tanned skin is a result of damage to skin cells. As many as 90% of melanomas are estimated to be caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies tanning beds and tanning lamps into its highest cancer risk category – carcinogenic to humans, the same category as other hazardous substances such as asbestos and plutonium. Numerous individual studies, including an analysis of several studies combined (meta-analyses), have shown that indoor tanning increases the risk of developing all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma.

In addition, the cumulative damage to skin cells can lead to wrinkles, age spots, premature aging and skin cancer. Tanning is so dangerous that several countries, including Brazil, have made it completely illegal. What about getting a “base tan” before you go on vacation? Well, studies have actually found that a base tan fails to protect against sunburn and provides minimal sun protection – equivalent to an SPF of about 3.

Did you know that tanning is addictive?

The connection between UV radiation and melanoma is clear, yet tanning is more popular than ever. This has prompted researchers to explore the addictive nature of tanning. Research shows tanning is addictive – similar to other cancer-causing activities, like tobacco use. UV light has been shown to increase the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that relieve pain and generate feelings of well-being. This could potentially lead to dependency. One study even found that some people who have been diagnosed with melanoma continue to use indoor tanning beds – further supporting the idea that tanning is addictive.

Can I get vitamin D from a tanning bed?

The tanning industry has tried to tell consumers that vitamin D is necessary and that it should be sought from tanning beds. However, the majority of tanning bulbs actually emit UVA radiation, and UVB radiation is needed for the body to produce vitamin D. All necessary vitamin D can be found in a healthy diet or from a vitamin supplement. If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, consult your doctor, not a tanning salon!

Secondary Prevention

Secondary prevention is defined as detecting melanoma in its earliest stages through regular skin exams by a dermatologist and regular dilated eye exams by an ophthalmologist or optometrist.

Research has shown that patients, not doctors, are most likely to spot a melanoma, reinforcing the importance of thoroughly checking your skin each month. Early detection could save your life.

Catch Melanoma Early – It May Save Your Life!

When we think of melanoma prevention, we often think of the usual: using sunscreen, covering up, not burning and staying out of tanning beds.. But, did you know that finding a suspicious mole or spot and having it checked out by a professional is considered one of the most important steps to preventing cutaneous (skin) melanoma? Detecting melanoma when it’s early enough to treat could mean the difference between life and a life-threatening illness.

Don’t forget about your eyes! Ocular melanoma is diagnosed in about 2,000 Americans each year. The best way to catch ocular melanoma early is with a dilated eye exam by a trained ophthalmologist. Make your appointment now, especially if you are 40 or older.

If you see something, don’t be afraid to say something!

Guide to Self-Screening

Too often we notice a suspicious mole on ourselves or someone else, yet we don’t make it a priority to get it checked out. As many patients and survivors have recounted, their melanoma was found by a friend or a partner who happened to notice something different – and urged them to see a dermatologist. It helps to know the symptoms of melanoma, but it’s not required – if any mole is changing, you should have it checked out. Catching melanoma in its earliest stages is one of the most important factors in improving the prognosis (or outcome) of a melanoma diagnosis.

Did you know that melanoma can also occur in places that don’t see the sun? Arm yourself with knowledge and learn more about mucosal melanoma, as well as what to look for in children.

What does melanoma look like?

ABCDEs of Melanoma

Melanoma and other skin cancers vary from person to person, but if you suspect that a spot on your skin fits the following descriptions, talk to your doctor right away. Note that not all skin cancers and melanomas fall into these categories, so just use this list as a guideline:

  • A change on the skin – this could be a new spot, or a change in color, shape or size of a current spot
  • A spot, sore or mole that doesn’t heal, becomes painful or tender
  • A mole that becomes itchy or begins to bleed
  • A spot, sore, mole or lump that looks shiny, waxy, smooth or pale
  • A firm red lump that bleeds or appears ulcerated or crusty
  • A flat, red spot that is rough, dry or scaly
  • A black/dark spot or streak under a fingernail or toenail (that doesn’t come from previous trauma to the nail)

Not sure where to start? Here are a few tips:

  • Check your skin thoroughly – even the places that never see the sun – including your scalp, nails, bottoms of your feet and between your fingers, where moles can be missed or overlooked.
  • Pay attention to your skin and know what is normal for YOU. Bring any mole or lesion that is new or changing to the attention of your dermatologist right away.
  • Choose a dermatologist who has experience with or specializes in melanoma.
  • What about preventing eye melanoma (ocular melanoma)? Visit an optometrist or an ophthalmologist regularly for routine eye exams. Learn more about the MRF’s #EyeGetDilated campaign. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a dilated eye exam every year beginning at age 40. Their program, EyeCare America, offers free medical eye exams to those who qualify.

Taking these steps does make a difference – research has shown that individuals are the ones most likely to spot a melanoma first.