Q. What is melanoma?
A. Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells. Melanoma may appear on the skin suddenly without warning but also can develop within an existing mole. The overall incidence of melanoma continues to rise. In fact, melanoma rates in the United States doubled from 1988 to 2019, and worldwide, the number of melanoma diagnoses are expected to increase by more than 50% by 2040.1
Q. Is melanoma a serious disease?
A. Melanoma is highly treatable when detected early, but advanced melanoma can spread to the lymph nodes and internal organs, which can result in death. It is estimated that 7,650 people will die from melanoma in 2022 in the United States.2,3
Q. What causes melanoma?
A. Excess exposure to UV radiation from sunlight or use of indoor tanning increases risk for all skin cancer types, including melanoma, as does a personal history of the disease.3 Research indicates that both UV light from the sun and tanning beds can cause melanoma and increase the risk of a benign mole progressing to melanoma.4
Experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases one's melanoma risk by 80 percent.5
Exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma diagnosis, and increases risk of being diagnosed with melanoma before the age 50.6,7
The majority of melanoma cases are attributable to UV exposure.8-10 Other possible factors include genetics and immune system deficiencies.
Using tanning beds before age 20 can increase your chances of developing melanoma by 47%, and the risk increases with each use.6
Women younger than 30 are six times more likely to develop melanoma if they tan indoors.11
Q. Who gets melanoma?
A. Melanoma can strike anyone. In fact, more than 1 million Americans are living with melanoma.12
Before age 50, rates are higher in women compared to men. After age 50, and in general, men have higher rates. White populations have higher rates compared other races.1-3 Your risk is also increased if you:
Have more than 50 moles, large moles or atypical (unusual) moles.2,13
Have had a previous melanoma or nonmelanoma skin cancer, which is more common than melanoma.13-15
Have a family history of melanoma.2,15,16
Have sun-sensitive skin (i.e., you sunburn easily; have red or blonde hair; or have blue or green eyes).2,15,16
Have a history of excessive sun exposure or indoor tanning.2,15,16
Have had other previous cancers, such as breast or colorectal.17-19
Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of skin color. In patients with skin of color, the disease is often diagnosed in its later stages, when it’s more difficult to treat.20Research has shown that patients with skin of color are less likely than White patients to survive melanoma.2,3,21
Q. What are atypical moles?
A. Most people have moles (also known as nevi). Atypical moles are unusual moles that are generally larger than normal moles and variable in color. They often have irregular borders and may occur in far greater numbers than regular moles. As with common moles, atypical moles can appear anywhere on the body, including areas exposed to the sun. They usually appear on the back, chest, and abdomen. Atypical moles rarely appear on the face. The presence of atypical moles is an important risk factor for melanoma developing in a mole or on apparently normal skin. Most atypical moles are benign (not cancerous). However, because this type of mole can turn into skin cancer, your dermatologist will likely advise you to watch atypical moles for changes that could be early signs of skin cancer.
Q. What does melanoma look like?
A. Recognition of changes in the skin is the best way to detect early melanoma. They most frequently appear on the upper back, torso, lower legs, head and neck, though these may vary by age, gender, and race.22-26
Rates of melanoma on the trunk/torso are higher in females 15-39 years old compared to males in this age range.22
People with skin of color are prone to skin cancer in areas that aren’t commonly exposed to the sun, like the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the groin and the inside of the mouth. They also may develop melanoma under their nails.20
The American Academy of Dermatology urges everyone to examine their skin regularly. This means looking over your entire body, including your back, your scalp, your palms, your soles, and between your toes.
If you notice a mole on your skin, you should follow the ABCDE rule, which outlines the warning signs of melanoma:
A stands for ASYMMETRY. One half of the spot is unlike the other half.
B stands for BORDER. The spot has an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border.
C stands for COLOR. The spot has varying colors from one area to the next, such as shades of tan, brown or black, or areas of white, red, or blue.
D stands for DIAMETER. While melanomas are usually greater than 6 mm, or about the size of a pencil eraser, when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
E stands for EVOLVING. The spot looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.
If you notice a new mole, a mole different from others on your skin, or one that changes, itches or bleeds, even if it is smaller than 6mm, you should make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible.
Q. Can melanoma be cured?
A. When detected in its earliest stages, melanoma is highly treatable. The average five-year survival rate for individuals whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 99%. The five-year survival rates for melanoma with regional and distant spread are 68% and 30%, respectively2,3
Early detection is essential. Dermatologists recommend a regular self-examination of the skin to detect changes in its appearance. Changing, suspicious or unusual moles or blemishes should be examined as soon as possible. A board-certified dermatologist can make individual recommendations as to how often a person needs a skin exam from a doctor based on individual risk factors, including skin type, history of sun exposure, and family history.
Q. Can melanoma be prevented?
A. UV exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma. Here’s how to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays:
Seek shade. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow appears to be shorter than you are, seek shade.
Wear sun-protective clothing, such as a lightweight long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses with UV protection, when possible. For more effective protection, choose clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) number on the label.
Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all skin not covered by clothing. Broad-spectrum sunscreen provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chances of sunburn.
Avoid tanning beds. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
Related AAD resources
1 SEER*Explorer: An interactive website for SEER cancer statistics; Melanoma of the Skin Long-Term Trends in SEER Age-Adjusted Incidence Rates, 1975-2019. Surveillance Research Program, National Cancer Institute. Accessed April 14, 2022. Available from https://seer.cancer.gov/explorer/.
2 American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2022. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2022.
3 Siegel RL, Miller KD, Fuchs HE, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2022. CA Cancer J Clin. 2022;72(1):7-33. doi:10.3322/caac.21708.
4 Shain, AH et al. The genetic evolution of melanoma from precursor lesions. N Engl J Med 2015; 373: 1926-1936.
5 Wu S, Han J, Laden F, Qureshi AA. Long-term ultraviolet flux, other potential risk factors, and skin cancer risk: a cohort study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomar Prev; 2014. 23(6); 1080-1089.
6 An S, Kim K, Moon S, et al. Indoor Tanning and the Risk of Overall and Early-Onset Melanoma and Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Cancers (Basel). 2021;13(23):5940. Published 2021 Nov 25.
7 Colantonio S, Bracken MB, Beecker J. The association of indoor tanning and melanoma in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Acad Dermatol 2014;70:847–57.
8 Arnold M, Kvaskoff M, Thuret A, Guenel P, Bray F and Soerjomatarm I. Cutaneous melanoma in France in 2015 attributable to solar ultraviolet radiation and the use of sunbeds. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. Published online April 16, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1111/jdv.15022
9 Arnold M et al. Global burden of cutaneous melanoma attributable to ultraviolet radiation in 2012. Int J Cancer. 2018 April. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijc.31527.
10 Islami F, Sauer AG, Miller KD, et al. Cutaneous melanomas attributable to ultraviolet radiation exposure by state. Int J Cancer. 2020;147(5):1385-1390. doi:10.1002/ijc.32921
11 Lazovich D, Isaksson Vogel R, Weinstock MA, Nelson HH, Ahmed RL, Berwick M. Association Between Indoor Tanning and Melanoma in Younger Men and Women. JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(3):268-275. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.2938
12 SEER Cancer Stat Facts: Melanoma of the Skin. National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD, http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/melan.html
13 Müller C, Wendt J, Rauscher S, et al. Risk Factors of Subsequent Primary Melanomas in Austria. JAMA Dermatol. 2019;155(2):188-195. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2018.4645
14 Beroukhim K, Pourang A, Eisen DB. Risk of second primary cutaneous and noncutaneous melanoma after cutaneous melanoma diagnosis: A population-based study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2020 Mar;82(3):683-689. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2019.10.024. Epub 2019 Oct 15. PMID: 31626886.
15 Conforti C, Zalaudek I. Epidemiology and Risk Factors of Melanoma: A Review. Dermatol Pract Concept. 2021;11(Suppl 1):e2021161S. Published 2021 Jul 1. doi:10.5826/dpc.11S1a161S
16 Carr S, Smith C, Wernberg J. Epidemiology and Risk Factors of Melanoma. Surg Clin North Am. 2020;100(1):1-12. doi:10.1016/j.suc.2019.09.005
17 Jeyakumar A, Chua TC, Lam AK, Gopalan V. The Melanoma and Breast Cancer Association: An Overview of their 'Second Primary Cancers' and the Epidemiological, Genetic and Biological correlations. Crit Rev Oncol Hematol. 2020;152:102989. doi:10.1016/j.critrevonc.2020.102989
18 Hirvonen K, Rantanen M, Haapaniemi A, Pitkäniemi J, Malila N, Mäkitie AA. Second primary cancer after major salivary gland carcinoma. Head Neck. 2018;40(2):251-258. doi:10.1002/hed.24937
19 Robertson D, Ng SK, Baade PD, Lam AK. Risk of extracolonic second primary cancers following a primary colorectal cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Colorectal Dis. 2022;37(3):541-551. doi:10.1007/s00384-022-04105-x
20 Agbai ON, Buster K, Sanchez M, Hernandez C, Kundu RV, Chiu M, Roberts WE, Draelos ZD, Bhushan R, Taylor SC, Lim HW. Skin cancer and photoprotection in people of color: a review and recommendations for physicians and the public. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;70(4):748-62.
21 Dawes SM et al. Racial disparities in melanoma survival. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Nov; 75(5):983-991.
22 Yuan TA, Lu Y, Edwards K, Jakowatz J, Meyskens FL, Liu-Smith F. Race-, Age-, and Anatomic Site-Specific Gender Differences in Cutaneous Melanoma Suggest Differential Mechanisms of Early- and Late-Onset Melanoma. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Mar 13;16(6):908. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16060908.
23 Culp MB, Lunsford NB. Melanoma Among Non-Hispanic Black Americans. Prev Chronic Dis. 2019;16:E79. Published 2019 Jun 20. doi:10.5888/pcd16.180640
24 Matthews NH, Li WQ, Qureshi AA, Weinstock MA, Cho E. Epidemiology of melanoma. Exon Publications. 2017 Nov 30:3-22.
25 Mahendraraj K, Sidhu K, Lau CSM, McRoy GJ, Chamberlain RS, Smith FO. Malignant Melanoma in African-Americans: A Population-Based Clinical Outcomes Study Involving 1106 African-American Patients from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Result (SEER) Database (1988-2011). Medicine (Baltimore). 2017;96(15):e6258. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000006258
26 Enninga EA, Moser JC, Weaver AL, Markovic SN, Brewer JD, Leontovich AA, Hieken TJ, Shuster L, Kottschade LA, Olariu A, Mansfield AS. Survival of cutaneous melanoma based on sex, age, and stage in the United States, 1992–2011. Cancer medicine. 2017 Oct;6(10):2203-12.
Last updated: 4/22/22