Melanoma Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease, including cancer. For example, smoking is a risk factor for heart disease and lung cancer. Risk factors may have to do with your personal traits or habits, or they may be due to your family history of a disease or condition or to your exposure to the environment.

By knowing your risk factors, you can take steps to reduce your chances of developing melanoma or increase your chances of finding the disease in its early, more treatable stages.

Major Risk Factors for Melanoma


Your moles or other skin lesions are a major risk factor for melanoma. Moles are colored spots on the skin usually shades of brown ranging from flesh colored to dark brown. The medical term for a mole is melanocytic nevus (plural nevi).

Learn more about moles

Skin Type

Skin type is the primary risk factor for developing melanoma. Fair-skinned races are at much greater risk than those with darker skins. This is because darker skinned people produce more melanin, the pigment that gives color to skin and hair, and protects the skin from damage from ultraviolet radiation.

Whites are 20 times more likely to develop melanoma than African Americans. It is important however to note that while whites are at increased risk, melanoma affects people of all races.

Learn more about skin types and risk
Learn more about melanoma in people of color

UV Exposure

Frequent and intense exposure to UV radiation, either from the sun or from indoor tanning devices, is the major risk factor for melanoma. It has been shown that repetitive and severe sunburns (sunburns that result in blistering), especially in childhood, put one at risk for melanoma. People who have fair skin that burns or freckles easily need to be especially careful in the sun. Intermittent exposure to intense sunlight is more strongly associated with the development of melanoma than continuous daily sun exposure.

Learn more about UV exposure
Learn more about indooor tanning

Personal or Family History

The risk of developing melanoma is significantly increased if there is a family history of melanoma in one or more of your first degree relatives (parent, brother or sister, or child). About 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of melanoma.

Learn more about the genetics of melanoma

Top 17 Risk Factors for Melanoma

Risk FactorRisk Level

Sun/UV exposure

Depends on skin type and other risk factors

Mole, new or preexisting, that has changed

High (10-400x greater)

Atypical moles (dysplastic nevi) with family history and a previous melanoma

Very high (500x greater)

Atypical moles (dysplastic nevi) with family history but without previous melanoma

High (148x greater)

Atypical moles (dysplastic nevi ) without family history and without previous melanoma

Moderately high (7-27x greater)

Congenital nevus

Moderately high (2-21x greater)


Moderately high (20x greater)

Lentigo maligna

Moderately high (10x greater)

20 moles at least 2mm diameter (if 50 nevi or more)

Moderately high (7-54x greater)

5 moles at least 5mm diameter (if 12 nevi or more)

Moderately high (10-41x greater)

5-8 nevi at least 7mm diameter (if 50 nevi or more)

Moderately high (6-17x greater)

Prior melanoma

Moderately high (9x greater)

Melanoma in an immediate family member

Moderately high (nearly 10x greater)


Moderate (4x greater)

Sun-induced freckles

Moderate (3x greater)

Sun sensitivity, relative inability to tan

Moderate (3x greater)

Red or blond hair, green or blue eyes

2x greater

What Increases Your Risk for Melanoma

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Information in the chart above was provided by A. Rhodes, as modified from Rhodes et al, in 5th edition of Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, p. 1026 Table 90-1.

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