Environmental Public Health Tracking: Melanoma Data

Cancer is a term used for diseases where abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases. There are more than 100 different types of cancer.

Melanoma is one type of cancer.  Review the FAQs below for more information about melanoma.

Access the melanoma data

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What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a cancer in the skin cells that produce a pigment called melanin. It is the most dangerous but least common type of skin cancer. If this type of skin cancer is found early, it can be cured. However, melanoma can spread through the body much more quickly than other types of skin cancers and can cause death.

What are the risk factors for melanoma?

Most melanomas are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Everyone is exposed to UV radiation from the sun. However, a growing number of people are being overexposed to sun rays and other sources of artificial UV radiation, like tanning beds or sunlamps.

When UV rays reach the skin's inner layer, the skin makes more melanin. The melanin moves toward the outer layers of the skin which causes a tan. A tan does not indicate good health. A tan is a response to injury, because skin cells are signaling that they have been hurt by UV rays by producing more pigment. People burn or tan depending on their skin type, the time of the year, and how long they are exposed to UV rays.  

People with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop melanoma.  These risk factors include:

  • A lighter natural skin color
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Personal history of skin cancer
  • Exposure to the sun through work and play
  • History of sunburns early in life
  • History of indoor tanning
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Certain types and a large number of moles

How is melanoma related to the environment?

Between 65 and 90% of melanomas are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. Small amounts of UV radiation are good for people and needed for the body to produce vitamin D. However, too much exposure to the sun’s rays can cause skin damage such as sunburn, wrinkles, and skin cancers. A lack of sun safety is believed to be a major reason for the rise in skin cancer rates, including melanoma, over the last few decades.

Is melanoma preventable?

Individuals should protect themselves from ultraviolet (UV) radiation all year round, not just during the summer. UV rays from the sun can reach people on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays also reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. Indoor tanning also exposes people to UV radiation. Individuals can lower their risk for melanoma by taking the following precautions:

  • Seek shade, especially during midday hours
  • Wear clothing to protect exposed skin
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck
  • Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block both UVA and UVB rays
  • Use sunscreen with sun protective factor (SPF) of 15 or higher, and ensure it protects against both UVA and UVB rays
  • Avoid indoor tanning

Where can I learn more about melanoma?

Last Revised: May 2, 2018