Reduce Your Melanoma Risk
Cutting-edge research funded by the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) continues to advance our understanding of the causes of melanoma. While pursuing a cure, the MRA also encourages the public to know the dangers of melanoma and to take these simple steps to reduce risk.
Protect yourself from the sun's damaging rays. Exposure to damaging UV rays from the sun and tanning devices is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma. Research shows an association between sunburn and melanoma, so it pays to be sun-smart every day: Wear protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses and broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30 all year long; seek shade; and avoid being out midday, when the sun's rays are most intense.
Avoid indoor tanning. Indoor tanning has been shown to increase the risk of melanoma by up to 75 percent. The World Health Organization has classified tanning devices as cancer-causing, and other scientific authorities (including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) warn that tanning devices cause such serious health risks as skin cancer, burns, premature skin aging and eye damage. Melanoma is the number-one new cancer diagnosed in young adults; scientists attribute this trend to the use of tanning beds among this age group, particularly young women.
Know your skin and examine it regularly. Recognizing skin changes is the best way to detect melanoma early. Look for the ABCDEs of melanoma: moles or growths that are Asymmetrical, have an irregular Border, exhibit changes in Color, have a Diameter larger than the size of a pencil eraser or have Evolved in size or thickness. If you notice one or more of these signs, see your doctor. Those with high risk factors—fair skin, red or blond hair and light eyes, history of sunburn or excessive UV radiation exposure, many (or unusual) moles, family or personal history of melanoma, weakened immune system—should consider discussing regular skin examinations with their dermatologist or health care provider.
Keep reading as we answer all your questions about vitamin D, sunscreen, skin health and more!
Q. Can you explain the different types of skin cancer?
A. There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma, which is the most serious. BCC (the most common form of skin cancer) and SCC are easily treated when caught early but can cause extensive damage to the surrounding tissue. SCC occasionally proves fatal if it spreads to the lymph nodes or other organs.
Melanoma develops from melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin. With early diagnosis and treatment, the chances of recovery are very good. If it is not found early, melanoma can grow deeper into the skin and spread to other parts of the body. Once melanoma has spread beyond the skin, it is difficult to treat.
Q. Who is most at risk for melanoma?
A. While some people are more susceptible to melanoma, everyone is at risk. Individuals who have fair skin, moles or freckles, who sunburn easily, or who have a family history of skin cancer have a higher risk for melanoma. Spending excessive amounts of time in the sun or living in sunny or high-altitude climates also increases your risk. But no matter your skin type or geographic location, you should wear sunscreen, limit sun exposure and pay attention to changes in your skin.
Q. Are there risk factors for melanoma other than UV exposure and fair skin?
A. Yes. Studies indicate that additional risk factors include dysplastic nevi (i.e., unusual-appearing moles that are large with multiple shades of color), more than 50 ordinary moles, personal history of melanoma or skin cancer, family history of skin cancer and weakened immune system.
Q. What exactly are ultraviolet rays, and why should I avoid them?
A. Ultraviolet (UV) rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells and can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging. Exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds is the most preventable risk factor for melanoma. UVA rays are the most abundant source of solar radiation at the earth's surface and penetrate beyond the top layer of skin. Scientists believe UVA rays can increase a person's risk for developing skin cancer. UVB rays are less abundant at the earth's surface and penetrate less deeply into the skin but can also be damaging and are primarily responsible for causing sunburn. It is important to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. The current SPF scoring system primarily refers to degree of protection against UVB radiation, and scientists at the FDA are working to develop and implement a system to measure UVA protection.
Q. How do sunscreens and sunblocks work?
A. Most sun-protection products work by absorbing, reflecting or scattering the sun's rays. These products contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB, the two main components of the sun's rays. UVA and UVB rays damage the skin in different ways, but both can lead to the development of skin cancer. It is important to note that UV exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, premature skin aging and other sun damage, so it is also important to limit time in the sun (especially midday, when UV exposure is greatest) and wear protective clothing.
Q. What should I look for in a sunscreen?
A. Protect yourself daily using a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with SPF of at least 30.
Q. I've heard some people say you should wear sunscreen year round; is that true?
A. Yes. UV radiation can still damage skin in the winter, even though the sun is not as strong. The sun's rays can penetrate clouds, haze and smoke, so sunscreen should be used even on cloudy days.
Q. Why is it important to reapply sunscreen frequently?
A. Three reasons: First, sunscreens can be physically rubbed off, such as when you dry yourself with a towel. Second, sunscreens can be washed off when swimming or with heavy sweating. Third, some of the active ingredients in sunscreens start to break down over time. This breakdown can be accelerated by sun exposure. These three factors can prevent sunscreens from providing the level of protection indicated by the SPF value. Generously apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outdoors and reapply at least every two hours and after swimming or perspiring heavily.
Q. I am concerned about getting enough vitamin D, and I've heard that I need to spend time in the sun or use tanning beds. Is this true?
A. Vitamin D has received a lot of attention in recent years, and many physicians are talking with their patients about vitamin D deficiency. New guidelines for how much vitamin D people need to stay healthy are forthcoming from the Institute of Medicine. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble hormone that regulates the absorption and metabolism of calcium and phosphorous, helping to form and maintain strong bones. Vitamin D is active throughout the body, and ongoing research is investigating its role in health and disease.
Vitamin D is naturally present in very few foods, added to others (fortified foods) and available as a dietary supplement. It is also produced in the body when ultraviolet (UV) rays contact the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis, which is why some people have concluded that they need more UV exposure to get enough vitamin D. However, exposure to UV rays is a major risk factor for melanoma and other skin cancers. UV rays (from the sun or tanning beds) penetrate the skin, damaging the skin and causing genetic mutations that can lead to cancer.
MRA encourages individuals to beware of the dangers of UV exposure and advises that people do not need to put themselves at risk of melanoma and other skin cancers to get vitamin D. If you and your doctor decide you are not getting enough vitamin D, oral supplements offer a safe alternative source of vitamin D without carcinogenic risk.
Q. Are tanning beds a safe alternative to being in the sun?
A. No, tanning beds are just as damaging as the sun because they emit similar ultraviolet radiation that can cause the same type of sunburn and mutations in the skin. The World Health Organization has classified indoor tanning devices as cancer-causing agents. Research shows that those who use indoor tanning devices have up to a 75 percent increased risk of melanoma. The risk increases with greater years of use, number of sessions or total hours of use. The federal government is considering regulating access to tanning parlors by minors because of the health problems they pose, which is a step that some states and localities have already taken.
Q. I'm going on vacation and don't want to get a sunburn. Shouldn't I use a tanning bed to get a "base tan" to protect my skin?
A. Many people think that a "base tan" protects their skin from a damaging burn. The truth is that a tan is really a sign of skin damage. Using a tanning bed just exposes your skin to a greater amount of UV radiation and increases your risk of developing skin cancer. The best way to protect your skin while out in the sun is the use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and avoid the midday sun.
Q. I used to tan quite a bit as a teenager but never had a sunburn. Should I be worried? Do I now have an increased risk for melanoma?
A. Most people associate sunburn with skin damage, but even developing a moderate tan can increase your risk for skin cancer. A tan develops when the skin tries to protect itself from exposure to UV rays. This UV radiation from a tanning bed or the sun causes damage to your skin even if no immediate signs of damage are seen. Skin aging and cancer are often delayed effects that show up many years after exposure. You may have an increased risk of developing skin cancer, but you can significantly address the risk by paying attention to changes in your skin and limiting any future exposure to UV radiation.