A person’s risk of developing cancer depends on many factors, including age, genetics, and exposure to risk factors (including some potentially avoidable lifestyle factors). In fact, 86% of melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK are preventable.6

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure 16

The main environmental risk factor for developing melanoma is exposure to UV radiation. This can be through natural sunlight, or through the artificial light used in sunbeds or sunlamps. UV radiation damages the DNA in our skin cells, which can cause the cells to grow uncontrollably and lead to melanoma.

There are two main types of UV rays that damage our skin, both of which can cause skin cancer:

  • UVB causes most sunburns
  • UVA ages the skin, however contributes less towards sunburn

There is a third type of UV ray called UVC. This is completely blocked out by the ozone layer and does not reach the Earth’s surface.

Sun exposure

In the UK, the number of people developing melanoma is steadily rising.17  One of the reasons for this has been attributed to an increase in popularity for package beach holidays, increasing sun exposure.18

Experts recommend regular exposure to a small amount of sunshine. This helps our bodies to make vitamin D, which keeps our bones, teeth and muscles healthy.19 However, too much exposure to the sun, including sunburn, increases the risk of skin cancer.20 Episodes of severe sunburn that cause the skin to blister, especially during childhood, can increase the risk of melanoma in the future.21

You should take extra care in the sun if you:20

  • have pale, white or light brown skin
  • have freckles or red or fair hair
  • tend to burn rather than tan
  • have many moles
  • have skin problems relating to a medical condition
  • are only exposed to intense sun occasionally – for example, while on holiday
  • are in a hot country where the sun is particularly intense
  • have a family history of skin cancer 

Sun beds

Sunbeds use artificial UV rays that can damage the DNA in your skin, and over time may increase the risk of melanoma. They can also cause your skin to age prematurely, making it look coarse, leathery and wrinkled. The more you use a sunbed or lamp, and the earlier in life you begin using them, the greater your risk. Evidence shows that people who are frequently exposed to UV rays before the age of 25 are at greater risk of developing skin cancer later in life.22


Other risk factors

Although exposure to UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds is the main risk factor for developing melanoma, it’s not the only risk factor. There are many things that may lead to the development of melanoma.


The risk of melanoma increases with age. Around half of people diagnosed in the UK with melanoma are aged 65 and over. However, younger people can also develop the disease and it is now the second most common cancer in adults under the age of 50.23

Your skin type

People with fair skin, red or fair hair and freckles are more sensitive to the sun. Because of their skin type, they burn more easily and so are more at risk of getting melanoma. Having naturally dark (brown or black) skin lowers your risk of getting melanoma, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll never get it.23

Moles and birthmarks

People who have a lot of moles (especially over 100) have a higher risk of getting melanoma.24  As do people with moles that are bigger than average (larger than 5mm in diameter), or that have an irregular shape or colour.23 Most of these moles (sometimes called atypical dysplastic naevi) do not change into melanoma, but it’s important to check them regularly for changes.25

If you were born with a birthmark over 20 cm in length (giant congenital melanocytic naevus) this also increases your risk of melanoma.  UK guidelines recommend that people who have large congenital melanocytic naevi should have their whole skin checked every year by a skin specialist (dermatologist).23

Family history

Family history of melanoma increases your risk, especially if you have a close relative who has had melanoma. Only a small number of melanomas are thought to be caused by inherited genes, such as in familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM). Some of these genes may also be linked to pancreatic cancer. This helps explain why some families at risk of melanoma are also at increased risk of pancreatic cancer.23

If close members of your family have had melanoma and you are worried that you may be at higher risk, see your GP. Your GP can check your family history and refer you to a genetic clinic if necessary.26

Reduced immunity

People with a weakened immune system have an increased risk of developing melanoma. This may result from reduced immunity due to infection with HIV or AIDS, or as a result of medicines given to suppress the immune system after an organ transplant.23

Click HERE for a full list of REFERENCES numbers listed throughout the site (nos.1-58)