Melanoma and UV: Link Explained

Medically Reviewed By Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
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Understanding the effects of UV rays and how they damage your skin is critical when it comes to reducing your risk of skin cancer.  UV rays radiate from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds. Protecting yourself from them is a year-round responsibility. While melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer, it is one of the most aggressive.

This article explains the different types of UV radiation and their effects on the skin. It also discusses sunburns, moles, and the risks of UV exposure for People of Color. Lastly, it mentions other risk factors of melanoma and tips for prevention.  

What is UV radiation?

there is a picture of the sun reflected in a mirror
Maria Maglionico/EyeEm/Getty Images

Radiation is energy that a source sends out. UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation that comes from the sun and other sources, such as:

  • tanning beds
  • black lights
  • welding torches
  • some lasers
  • certain lights, including halogen, fluorescent, and incandescent lights
  • mercury vapor lighting in many stadiums and school gyms

UV rays benefit humans in that they help the body produce vitamin D, which is essential for health.

However, overexposure to UV rays has risks, such as premature aging, skin cancer, and eye damage. 

The World Health Organization recommends optimal sun exposure as 5–15 minutes to the hands, face, and arms for two to three times a week during the summer months to maintain your vitamin D level. If you live nearer to the equator, shorter exposure times are enough.

Sunburn and cancer link

Sunburn describes an inflammatory reaction to UV radiation damage to the skin’s outermost layers.

Sunburns typically fade after a few days. However, severe burns may blister and peel, causing pain and leaving the newly exposed layer of skin more susceptible to UV damage. 

Tanning carries a great risk as well. When laying out in the sun or a tanning booth, your skin experiences damage, and the melanin production increases to protect the skin from further damage. While tanning may be cosmetically appealing to some people, tanning indicates skin damage from UV rays.

Read more about sunburns and skin cancer.

Different types of UV explained

Not all UV rays are equal in the type of skin damage they cause.

UVA rays 

UVA rays carry the least amount of energy. However, they can travel deep into the skin and indirectly damage skin cells’ DNA. UVA damage links with premature skin aging, wrinkles, and developing skin cancers.

UVB rays 

UVB rays have more energy than UVA rays. They can directly damage skin calls’ DNA and are the main cause of sunburns. Experts believe that these rays cause most skin cancers. The ozone absorbs most of the UVB rays. However, some do still reach the earth.  

Skin cancer on moles

Moles are noncancerous growths that are typically harmless. However, people with many moles can be at a higher risk of developing melanoma. 

  • Dysplastic nevi: These moles look similar to typical moles. However, they have some melanoma features. They are typically larger and have atypical colors or shapes. A few of these moles turn to cancer, but most do not.
  • Dysplastic nevus syndrome: This inheritable condition causes many dysplastic nevi. People with this condition can be at a high risk of melanoma and may benefit from regular exams by a dermatologist
  • Congenital melanocytic nevi: These are moles present at birth. The risk of melanoma developing in a congenital melanocytic nevus is between 0 and 5%, depending on the size of the nevus. The risk of a congenital nevus developing a melanoma is low for lesions less than the size of the palm of a hand but increases for a congenital nevus larger than this.

Whether doctors advise removing a congenital nevus depends on several factors including its size, location, and color. Many experts recommend that when doctors do not remove a congenital nevus, a dermatologist can examine the mole regularly and teach people who have one how to do monthly skin self-exams.

The following mole features can indicate that a mole may be cancerous:

  • jagged edges
  • changes in color or having several colors
  • increased growth

Learn how doctors diagnose melanoma.

Skin cancer on dark skin

While people with fair skin can be at a higher risk, People of Color can still get melanoma.

Recognizing skin changes is the best way to detect early melanoma. They most frequently appear on the upper back, torso, lower legs, head, and neck, but these may vary by age, gender, and race.

People with darker skin can get skin cancer in areas that do not commonly have sun exposure, like the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the groin, and the inside of the mouth. They also may develop melanoma under their nails.

Symptoms of melanoma may include a patch of discolored skin, such as:

  • black
  • brown
  • red
  • white

Experts recommend avoiding sunlight exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen lotion or cream of SPF 30 or higher. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply every 2 hours when outdoors. Avoid tanning salons and frequent sunbathing. 

There is also an increase in skin cancer occurrence and deaths linked with skin cancer in People of Color due to a lack of awareness, receiving a diagnosis at a more advanced stage, and socioeconomic barriers hindering access to care.

Learn more about skin cancer on Black skin.

Melanoma risk factors

Melanoma may often occur in people more than 30 years old or assigned male at birth. It may also be common in people with:

  • many moles
  • fair skin with light eyes, hair, or freckles
  • a family history of melanoma
  • weakened immune systems
  • xeroderma pigmentosum
  • experiences with childhood sunburns or regularly tanning in natural sunlight or tanning beds

Preventing melanoma

Everyone can take steps toward preventing melanoma. The first step is understanding the damaging effects of UV rays. Next, you can protect yourself when you go outside by:

  • wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing
  • staying in the shade when outdoors
  • using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher
  • applying sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors
  • reapplying sunscreen every 2 hours when outside
  • avoiding sunbathing frequently and indoor tanning

Learn more about staying safe in the sun.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some commonly asked questions about melanoma.

Can melanoma spread?

Melanoma can start as a growth or spot on your skin and spread to other areas of your body. It is one of the most aggressive types of skin cancer and can get into your lymphatic system and spread. 

What should I do if I get sunburnt?

Most sunburns heal on their own without medical treatment. To help your skin heal, protect it from further sun exposure, and apply aloe vera or hydrocortisone cream. Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen for pain.

Cool colloidal oatmeal baths can also help relieve irritated skin.

Summary

UV radiation exposure has clear links to potentially causing melanoma, one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer. Understanding UV radiation and its potentially damaging effects can help you make decisions about keeping your skin healthy.

Experts encourage people with many moles to take special care by checking their bodies for skin cancer. And while it is less likely, People of Color can still get melanoma.

To lower your risk of melanoma, protect your skin from sun damage by wearing sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher and wearing protective clothing while out in the sun. Avoid sunbathing frequently and using tanning beds. 

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Medical Reviewer: Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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