Can melanoma skin cancer be prevented?
Not all melanomas can be prevented, but there are things you can do that might reduce your risk.
Limit UV exposure
The best way to lower the risk of melanoma is to limit your exposure to strong sunlight and other sources of UV light. Simply staying in the shade is one of the best ways to limit being exposed to UV rays. Avoid being outdoors in sunlight too long, especially in the middle of the day when UV light is most intense. If you are going to be in the sun, “Slip! Slop! Slap! … and Wrap” is a catch phrase to remind you of some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays.
- Slip on a shirt
- Slop on sunscreen
- Slap on a hat
- Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and the skin around them
Stay in the shade
Look for shade, especially in the middle of the day, between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest. If you are not sure about how strong the sun is, use the shadow test: if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are the strongest, and you need to protect yourself. Keep in mind that sunlight (and UV rays) can come through clouds, reflect off water, sand, concrete, and snow, and can reach below the water’s surface.
Protect your skin with clothing
Clothes vary in how much they can protect you. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or long skirts are the best. Dark colors are better than light colors. A tightly woven fabric protects better than loosely woven clothing. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too. Dry clothing is better than wet clothing.
Some clothing is made with built-in UV protection. There are also newer products that can increase the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) value of clothes you already own. Used like laundry detergents, they add a layer of UV protection to your clothes without changing the color or how the cloth feels. This can be useful, but it’s not really clear how much it adds to helping protect you from UV rays, so it is still important to follow the other steps listed here.
Wear a hat
A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is good because it protects the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp. A shade cap (which looks like a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric draping down the sides and back) is also good. These are often sold in sports and outdoor supply stores.
A baseball cap can protect the front and top of the head, but not the neck or the ears. Straw hats are not a good as ones that are made of tightly woven fabric.
Use sunscreen and lip balm. Broad spectrum products (which protect against different types of UV rays) with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more are recommended. Be sure to use enough – a palmful to cover your arms, legs, face, and neck. And put it on again every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating. Use sunscreen even on days with light or broken cloud cover because UV rays still come through.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’re using sunscreen, you can stay out in the sun longer. Sunscreen should not be used to gain extra time in the sun, because you will still end up with damage to your skin.
Wrap-around sunglasses that absorb at least 99% of the UV rays help protect your eyes and the skin around your eyes. Look for sunglasses labeled as blocking UVA and UVB light.
Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps
Many people believe the UV rays of tanning beds are harmless. This is not true. Tanning lamps give out UVA and often UVB rays as well. Both of these can cause long-term skin damage and are linked to skin cancer. Tanning bed use has been linked with an increased risk of melanoma, especially if it is started before the age of 30. Most skin doctors and health groups advise against using tanning beds and sun lamps.
If you want a tan, one option is a sunless tanning lotion. These can make you look tan without the danger. You do not have to go out in the sun for these to work. The color tends to wear off after a few days. Most sunless tanning lotions don’t protect very much from UV rays. If you use one, you should still take other measures mentioned above to protect your skin when you are outside.
Some tanning salons offer a spray-on tan. A concern here is that the spray should not be inhaled or sprayed in or on the mouth, eyes, or nose. People who choose to get a spray tan should make sure to protect these areas.
Protect children from the sun
Be especially careful about sun protection for children. Children tend to spend more time outdoors and they burn more easily. Teach them to protect themselves from the sun as they get older. Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected from the sun with hats and clothing. Sunscreen may be used on small places of exposed skin only if there isn’t enough shade or clothing.
A word about sunlight and vitamin D
Doctors are learning that vitamin D has many health benefits. It may even help to lower the risk for some cancers. Vitamin D is made by your skin when you are in the sun. How much vitamin D is made depends on many things, such as how old you are, how dark your skin is, and how strong the sunlight is where you live.
At this time, doctors aren’t sure what the best level of vitamin D is. When possible, it is better to get vitamin D from your diet or vitamins rather than from the sun. These sources do not increase risk for skin cancer.
To find out more about how to protect yourself and your family from UV rays, see our document, Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.
Check for abnormal moles and have them removed
If you have many moles, your doctor may want to watch them closely with regular exams and may advise you to do monthly skin self-exams. (See the section, “How is melanoma skin cancer found?”). The doctor may want to remove some of them if they have certain features that suggest they might be changing into a melanoma.
If you find a new, unusual, or changing mole, you should have it checked by your doctor.
Genetic counseling and testing
Gene changes (mutations) that increase melanoma risk can be passed down through families, but they account for only a small portion of melanomas. You might have inherited a gene mutation that increases your risk of melanoma if:
- Several members of one side of your family have had melanoma
- A family member has had more than one melanoma
- A family member has had both melanoma and pancreatic cancer
- You have had more than one melanoma
Genes have been found to have changed (mutated) in some families with high rates of melanoma. Because it’s not clear how useful the tests for these gene changes might be, most melanoma experts do not recommend genetic testing for people with a family history of melanoma at this time. Still, some people may choose to get tested.
Before getting any type of genetic testing, it’s important to know ahead of time what the results may or may not tell you about your risk. Genetic testing is not perfect, and in some cases the tests might not give you solid answers. This is why meeting with a genetic counselor before testing is the first step in helping you decide if testing should be done.
Last Medical Review: 09/26/2012
Last Revised: 01/17/2013