There is no 100 percent effective way to prevent melanoma, but there’s a lot you can do to lower the odds. Most strategies aimed at preventing melanoma are geared toward reducing sun exposure and preventing sun damage via sunburns.
People who are already at higher risk because of factors beyond their control — they have pale skin that burns or freckles easily, say, or a family history of melanoma — should follow these protective measures with extra care.
But even those of us who might seem to be at low risk need to take precautions.
For instance, people of color are at much lower risk than Caucasians of developing melanoma — but when they do get this cancer, it is more deadly.
A July 2016 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that African-American patients were more likely than whites to be diagnosed with melanoma at a later stage and to have a poorer prognosis. (1)
Seek Out Shade
There are many ways to protect yourself outside. The best overall strategy generally involves combining a number of different methods.
Finding shade, especially between the peak UV hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., can go a long way but that’s not far enough.
You may still get a significant amount of UV exposure even if you’re sitting in a sheltered spot under a tree. UVB rays (considered the most harmful) can reach the skin indirectly by bouncing off UV-reflective surfaces like concrete.
Umbrellas also block fewer UV rays than you might think. The amount of UV underneath a beach umbrella, for instance, might be up to 84 percent of that in sunlight because of rays reflected from the sand or water. (2)
More skin cancers develop on the head than on other parts of the body. Faces (especially noses) are trouble spots; for men, ears are a melanoma danger zone.
Melanoma of the head or neck is twice as deadly as melanoma on other parts of the body.
Wearing a hat is key. One with a broad rim all around that points downward will block UV rays best. The rim needs to be at least three-inches wide to shade the nose and cheeks.
Sunglasses are also critical, as UV rays can cause conditions ranging from cataracts to, rarely, ocular (eye) melanoma. Look for styles that cover the eyelids and as much of the surrounding skin as possible and that have a tag confirming the glasses block 90 to 100 percent of all UV radiation.
When it comes to clothing, the more covered up you are, the better.
Tightly woven, loose-fitting, and dark or bright fabrics are especially good — red or black clothes are better than pastels or white. Synthetic or semi-synthetic materials, like polyester and rayon, are better than bleached cotton or crepe. (3)
Slather on the Sunscreen
Sunscreen is an essential part of any sun-protection strategy.
It is not sufficient on its own, however: Some UV rays still get through.
Even a sunscreen with a high SPF (sun protection factor) doesn’t mean you can safely stay outside in the sun longer, useless, or reapply less frequently.
Look for sunscreens with broad-spectrum protection, meaning they block both UVA and UVB rays. The Skin Care Foundation recommends SPF 15 and higher; the American Cancer Society advocates SPF 30 and up.
The SPF number on the bottle indicates the amount of protection against UVB rays — the kind that causes sunburn. An SPF 15 sunscreen filters out 93 percent of UVB rays; an SPF 30, about 97 percent.
An adult needs about one ounce of sunscreen (about two tablespoons or a palmful) to cover the arms, legs, neck, and face. Reapply every two hours or more frequently if you’ve been swimming or sweating heavily. (4)
Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before UV exposure to allow it to fully bind to the skin.
Sunscreen is safe for babies after the age of 6 months. Before then, keep infants out of direct sunlight, covering them with hats and protective clothing. (5)
Don’t Get Burned
If you or your family find yourselves outside without any sun protection on a day with a high UV Index, don’t delay: Hightail it indoors.
While this may seem extreme, blistering sunburns can significantly increase melanoma risk.
Researchers have found that even one blistering sunburn as a child or adolescent doubles melanoma risk.
Having five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increases melanoma risk by 80 percent. (6)
Avoid Tanning Beds and Sun Lamps
While tanning salons promote themselves as a safe way to tan, research soundly disproves this.
Studies have found that even a single indoor tanning session can increase melanoma risk by 20 percent. (7)
The risk goes up higher the younger you are. A recent study discovered that women 30 years old and younger who tanned indoors were six times more likely to develop melanoma. (8)
Do Regular Skin Self-Exams
An annual skin examination by a doctor and regular skin self-exams can help you stop early-stage melanoma from spreading. Caught early, melanoma is over 98 percent curable.
Check yourself thoroughly from head to toe (and underneath your toenails, too) using a full-length mirror and a small hand mirror to help you see areas like the back of your neck. It’s even better to have a partner help you check hard-to-see areas of your body.
Once you get the hang of it, a complete skin self-exam should take no longer than 10 minutes. (9)