In the Spotlight
Are You Protected Against Skin Cancer?
You don't have to stay inside, but here are some basics to avoid skin cancer
What is malignant melanoma?
Malignant melanoma is a serious type of cancer which is found mostly in skin but also (rarely) in other areas of the body. It is one of the less common types of skin cancer but causes the majority of skin cancer-related deaths
Who can get melanoma?
Anyone can get melanoma regardless of age, sex or racial origin. There is a common misperception that only fair skinned individuals can get a melanoma. Dark skinned individuals also get melanoma, but less frequently.
What are the risk factors for developing melanoma?
People with white skin color, red or blond hair, light blue or green eyes, freckles, and those who have difficulty tanning (never tan or tan minimally) have the highest incidence.
The following factors also increase risk of melanoma:
Large number of moles (the average adult has about 40)
Large moles, (over 6 inches) present at birth, increase lifetime risk by 6-7 percent
A history of atypical (dysplastic) moles
Personal or family history of melanoma
Use of tanning devices
What can I do to protect from melanoma?
Avoid mid-day sun exposure between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you do spend time in the mid-day sun, wear clothing to cover as much of your skin as possible or apply sunscreen with broad spectrum coverage (UVA and UVB) 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply every 2 hours and immediately after swimming to bare skin. Wear a hat with a 3-inch brim that goes all the way around, long sleeves and long pants. Seek shade when possible. Do not sunbathe or use tanning beds. Sunless tanning lotions and sprays are safe to use if you wish to appear tanned. Do not forget to protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses.
What do I look for when checking my skin?
Check your skin once a month, looking for unusual new moles or changes in existing ones. Use mirrors to see your back, or have someone check for you. The A, B, C, D, E's of melanoma serve as a guide in examining skin lesions:
Asymmetry means that one side of the mole is a different shape than the other side.
Border is the outline of a mole. It should be sharp and regular.
Color of moles should be an even tone through-out the mole
Diameter refers to the size of the mole measured through the center. Moles larger than a pencil eraser should be checked.
Evolving means that a mole that has looked the same for years is changing in any of the above A, B, C, D's, or that a flat mole is now raised, or has started itching.
Melanomas are frequently found by a spouse or friend. If someone tells you that a spot on your skin looks funny, it is a good idea to see your doctor to have it checked. If you are a Veteran patient, this can start with a Secure Message (login required) to your health care team.
Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma (National Cancer Institute)
Facts about Sunscreens (American Academy of Dermatology)
Updated May 20, 2019