What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. Characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells, melanoma is responsible for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths in the U.S.

Melanomas can occur anywhere on the skin, including areas without sun exposure, but they are more likely to start in certain locations.

The average age of diagnosis is 63, but melanoma is not uncommon among people younger than 30. In fact, it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults — especially young women.

Rates Have Been Rising for 30 Years

96,000 new cases
of melanomas of the skin will be
diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019

57,000 men

39,000 women

7,200 Americans
are expected to
die of melanoma in 2019

4,700 men

2,500 women

While melanoma accounts for only about
1 percent of all skin cancers in the U.S., it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.

Signs & Symptoms

According to the American Cancer Society, a new spot on the skin — one that changes in size, shape or color, or one that looks different – is an important warning sign of melanoma and should be checked by a doctor. The ABCDE rule outlines the characteristics of moles that may be melanomas and is helpful guidance for monitoring skin changes:

one side does not match the other

the edges are irregular

the mole or spot doesn’t have the same color throughout (it may have different colors or different shades of the same color)

larger than 6 millimeters (although melanomas can sometimes be smaller)

the spot is changing in size, shape or color

Any of these warning signs should be discussed with a doctor, especially if you feel you are at risk for melanoma.

Risk Factors

Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure


Fair skin, freckles and light hair

Family history

Personal history of having melanoma or other skin cancers

Having a weakened immune system

Being older

Being male

Xeroderma pigmentosum
(a rare skin condition that affects the skin’s ability to repair DNA damage)

Ways to Lower Risk

Melanoma can’t be entirely prevented, but there are ways to lower risk. The number one way to lower risk is to protect against UV rays, which damage the DNA of skin cells and impact the genes that control skin cell growth. The top source of UV rays is the sun. That’s why it’s important to practice sun safety every time you go outside, even on cloudy days when UV rays can still shine through. Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

Seek Shade

UV exposure is greatest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you need to be outside during these hours, seek shade – under a tree, an umbrella or an awning.

Wear a Hat

Try to find a hat with a wide brim – at least 2 or 3 inches wide – to protect your face, top of the head, ears and neck.

Cover Up

Choose clothing with a tight knit or weave, and avoid shirts that you can see through. Remember, if light is getting through, then UV rays are too.

Use Sunscreen

For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Wear Sunglasses

Protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Pick a pair that will block as close to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.

Check the UV Index

Check the sun’s UV radiation levels online at the Environmental Protection Agency’s UV Index.

More Resources

Interested in the latest scientific approach to melanoma? Read Dr. Nageatte Ibrahim’s perspective on advances in melanoma research and what lies ahead.