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A risk factor is anything that raises your risk of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking and excess sun exposure, can be changed. Others, like your age or family history, can’t be changed.
Having a risk factor, or even many risk factors, does not mean that you will get melanoma. Many people with risk factors never get melanoma. And some people who get it may have few or no known risk factors.
Still, it’s important to know about the risk factors for melanoma because there may be things you can do to lower your risk of getting it. If you are at higher risk because of certain factors, there are also things you can do that might help find it early, when it’s likely to be easier to treat.
Several risk factors can make a person more likely to develop melanoma.
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is a major risk factor for most melanomas. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Tanning beds and sun lamps are also sources of UV rays.
While UV rays make up only a very small portion of the sun’s rays, they are the main cause of the damaging effects of the sun on the skin. UV rays damage the DNA (genes) inside skin cells. Skin cancers can begin when this damage affects the DNA of genes that control skin cell growth.
The pattern and timing of the UV exposure may play a role in melanoma development. For example, melanoma on the trunk (chest and back) and legs has been linked to frequent sunburns (especially in childhood). This might also have something to do with the fact that these areas aren't constantly exposed to UV light. Some evidence suggests that melanomas that start in these areas are different from those that start on the face, neck, and arms, where the sun exposure is more constant. And different from either of these are melanomas on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or under the nails (known as acral lentiginous melanomas), or on internal surfaces such as the mouth and vagina (mucosal melanomas), where there has been little or no sun exposure.
To learn more about the effects of UV rays on the skin and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, see Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation and How Do I Protect Myself from Ultraviolet (UV) Rays?
A mole (also known as a nevus) is a benign (non-cancerous) pigmented tumor. Babies are not usually born with moles; they often begin to appear in children and young adults.
Having many moles: Most moles will never cause any problems, but someone who has many moles is more likely to develop melanoma.
Atypical moles (dysplastic nevi): These moles look a little like normal moles but also have some features of melanoma. They are often larger than other moles and have an abnormal shape or color. (See Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma Skin Cancer for descriptions of how moles and melanomas look.) They can appear on skin that is exposed to the sun as well as skin that is usually covered, such as on the buttocks or scalp.
Dysplastic nevi often run in families. A small percentage of dysplastic nevi may develop into melanomas. But most dysplastic nevi never become cancer, and many melanomas seem to arise without a pre-existing dysplastic nevus.
Dysplastic nevus syndrome (atypical mole syndrome): People with this inherited condition have many dysplastic nevi. If at least one close relative has had melanoma, this condition is referred to as familial atypical multiple mole and melanoma syndrome, or FAMMM.
People with this condition have a very high lifetime risk of melanoma, so they need to have very thorough, regular skin exams by a dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in skin problems). Sometimes full body photos are taken to help the doctor recognize if moles are changing and growing. Many doctors recommend that these patients be taught to do monthly skin self-exams as well.
Congenital melanocytic nevi: Moles present at birth are called congenital melanocytic nevi. The lifetime risk of melanoma developing in congenital melanocytic nevi is estimated to be between 0 and 5%, depending on the size of the nevus. People with very large congenital nevi have a higher risk, while the risk is lower for those with small nevi. For example, the risk for melanoma is very low in congenital nevi smaller than the palm of the hand, while those that cover large portions of back and buttocks (“bathing trunk nevi”) have significantly higher risks.
Congenital nevi are sometimes removed by surgery so that they don’t have a chance to become cancer. Whether doctors advise removing a congenital nevus depends on several factors including its size, location, and color. Many doctors recommend that congenital nevi that are not removed should be examined regularly by a dermatologist and that the patient should be taught how to do monthly skin self-exams.
Again, the chance of any single mole turning into cancer is very low. However, anyone with lots of irregular or large moles has an increased risk for melanoma.
The risk of melanoma is much higher for White people than for African Americans. People with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or fair skin that freckles or burns easily are at increased risk.
Your risk of melanoma is higher if one or more of your first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, or children) has had melanoma. Around 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease.
The increased risk might be because of a shared family lifestyle of frequent sun exposure, a family tendency to have fair skin, certain gene changes (mutations) that run in a family, or a combination of these factors.
Most experts don’t recommend that people with a family history of melanoma have genetic testing to look for mutations that might increase risk, as it’s not yet clear how helpful this is. Rather, experts advise that they do the following:
A person who has already had melanoma has a higher risk of getting melanoma again. People who have had basal or squamous cell skin cancers are also at increased risk of getting melanoma.
A person’s immune system helps fight cancers of the skin and other organs. People with weakened immune systems (from certain diseases or medical treatments) are more likely to develop many types of skin cancer, including melanoma.
For example, people who get organ transplants are usually given medicines that weaken their immune system to help prevent them from rejecting the new organ. This increases their risk of melanoma.
People infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, often have weakened immune systems and are also at increased risk for melanoma.
Melanoma is more likely to occur in older people, but it is also found in younger people. In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 (especially younger women). Melanoma that runs in families may occur at a younger age.
In the United States, men have a higher rate of melanoma than women, although this varies by age. Before age 50, the risk is higher for women; after age 50 the risk is higher in men.
Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) is a rare, inherited condition that affects skin cells’ ability to repair damage to their DNA. People with XP have a high risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers when they are young, especially on sun-exposed areas of their skin.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Curiel-Lewandrowski C. Risk factors for the development of melanoma. UpToDate. 2019. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/risk-factors-for-the-development-of-melanoma on June 10, 2019.
Mitchell TC, Karakousis G, Schuchter L. Chapter 66: Melanoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
Ribas A, Read P, Slingluff CL. Chapter 92: Cutaneous Melanoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Last Revised: August 14, 2019
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