What Is Melanoma and How to Detect It

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Have you found yourself looking for more information on melanoma? Is it caused by the sun? Or by genetics? And what do the early signs of melanoma look like?

It can be a big, and often scary, subject to tackle — but it’s also a very important one. In 2024, the American Cancer Society estimates that 100,640 new melanomas will be diagnosed, as rates of melanoma rise across the USA. Yet, many of these cases are preventable with awareness and early detection.

As leaders in sun protection, we aim to inspire a future without skin cancer. We’ve teamed up with world-renowned dermatologist Dr. Susana Puig to share guidance that you can depend on: ‘’Let’s talk about melanoma — because being informed is the first step to protecting our health.’’

Read on for expert advice on performing a self-skin examination, when to go to a dermatologist for a check-up, and how to help minimize your risk of melanoma.

Meet the expert: Dr. Susana Puig

Head of Dermatology at Hospital Clínic in Barcelona and Academic Director of the International School of Derma (ISD).

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What is melanoma?

The clues are in the name: melanocytes are the cells in your skin that contribute to its color. Meanwhile, melanoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs when melanocytes start reproducing uncontrollably.

Although it’s less common than many other types of skin cancer, it’s the most aggressive. (1) What makes it dangerous? It can spread very rapidly to other parts of the body. Once melanoma spreads, it’s considered invasive and can potentially become life-threatening. (1) That’s why educating yourself about skin cancer (just like you are right now!) is so important.

What does it look like?

We asked Dr. Puig. “In general, the first sign of melanoma is a change in a mole’s size, shape, color, or texture,” she shares. However, it can present differently from person to person.

Many melanomas exhibit a bluish or black area and distinct characteristics compared to your other moles, marks, or freckles. She elaborates, “Melanoma can also appear as a pink lesion that doesn’t go away, a line of color on your fingernail that widens over time, or a new lesion that keeps growing and is dark or reddish, looking different from others. We call this the sign of the ugly duckling.

Signs and symptoms of melanoma ISDIN

Expert tip:
While medical experts have contributed to and fact-checked this article, there are lots of additional sources of information on melanoma available. Turn to these foundations for the latest information:
American Cancer Society
Skin Cancer Foundation
National Cancer Institute

What causes melanoma?

The main cause of melanoma is sun exposure, along with genetic factors. On top of being responsible for 80% of visible skin aging, repeated exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of skin cancer, overall. These UV rays can cause the appearance of cancerous and precancerous lesions on the skin. Melanoma is considered a cancerous lesion.

Who’s at risk?

Dr. Puig reminds us that anyone can develop skin cancer — but the correct use of sun protection can reduce your risk. “Protecting yourself from the sun daily is the best strategy to prevent the visible signs of skin aging, actinic keratoses, and, most importantly, melanoma and other skin cancers,” she explains.

How to help prevent melanoma ISDIN

Overall, the likelihood of developing melanoma increases in those who:

  • Have lighter skin tones
  • Had sunburns during childhood
  • Spend many hours in the sun
  • Use or have used tanning beds
  • Have more than 50 moles or beauty spots
  • Have a history of skin cancer in the family
  • Are 50 years of age or older
  • Have had an organ transplant (immunosuppression can increase the risk of melanoma)

How can I help protect myself from melanoma?

Dr. Puig explains the three steps that can help you minimize your overall risk of skin cancer: sun protection, self-examination, and dermatological examination. Let’s get into the details of each.

Step 1: Help reduce your risk by protecting yourself from the sun

Here’s the good news: over 80% of melanoma cases can be prevented. The best way to minimize your risk? By taking proactive steps to keep your skin healthy and protected.

Dr. Puig shares her expert advice:

Avoid lengthy sun exposure during midday hours, when solar radiation is stronger. Tip: The smaller your shadow is, the stronger the sun’s radiation.

✅ Always use sunscreen on exposed skin. For proper protection, use a high SPF broad spectrum sunscreen. Apply it generously about 15 minutes before exposure, and reapply at least every 2 hours.

✅ Use other physical protective measures such as sunglasses, umbrellas, hats, or clothing.

✅ Avoid sunburn: Sunburn is one of the biggest factors in increasing the risk of skin cancer and melanoma.

Expert tip: Dr. Susan Puig echoes the importance of applying sunscreen the right way, “We must apply a sufficient amount of product and distribute it correctly.” That means paying extra attention to those easy-to-miss spots like your ears, toes, and nose.

Step 2: Learn how to look for potential signs of melanoma

While self-exams can’t diagnose melanoma or replace your yearly visit to the dermatologist, they can help you take your health into your own hands. Where to start? Dr. Puig shares an expert method: “Get to know your skin, observing changes and using what’s known as the ABCDE technique. It’s an acronym that helps identify the most common signs of melanoma.” These are:

  • Asymmetry: the outline of one half of the mole is different from the other.
  • Border: the edges are uneven, ill-defined, or irregular.
  • Color: the color is uneven and can include black, brown, and cinnamon-colored shades.
  • Diameter: its size changes, usually increasing.
  • Evolution: any changes in the mole in the last few weeks or months.

Other melanoma warning signs could be:

  • A wound that doesn’t heal
  • A mole’s color starts spreading beyond its original border
  • A mole starts swelling or becoming inflamed
  • Changes in feeling (itching, tenderness, or pain)
  • Changes in a mole’s surface (peeling, bleeding, or a nodule)

Overall, make sure to keep track of any new moles or areas of color change on the skin, noting any shift in size, shape, or color. Pay attention to skin changes such as new freckles or skin pigmentation. Something else to look out for? A mole that looks different from the others on your skin. If any of your moles match these characteristics, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist for a skin exam to check things out.

Expert tip: As you track the changes in your skin, take pictures on your cell phone and keep notes. That way, you’ll be better prepared to discuss any concerns with your dermatologist when your appointment comes around. 

Step 3: Schedule an annual skin examination with your dermatologist

It’s a good idea for everyone to check in with their dermatologist once a year — and for some more than others. Dr. Puig elaborates, “Those with many moles or a personal or family history of skin cancer should have a yearly dermatological exam using a dermoscopy.”

Dermascope Annual Dermatologist Check Up

What to expect at the dermatologist’s office

When you get to your appointment, your dermatologist will analyze all moles on your body, and interpret them with diagnostic imaging techniques. Why is it important to check carefully from head to toe? Sometimes melanoma can appear in places that aren’t easily visible.

Dermatologists can combine several techniques for a skin examination including digital dermoscopy, or a handheld dermoscope. Dr. Puig explains that these tools can help analyze over 100 moles in under 90 seconds. She continues, “Dermoscopy allows us to see parts of the skin’s structure that aren’t visible to the naked eye. With this, we can improve diagnostic accuracy by 25%.”

Expert tip: It’s especially important to schedule a skin examination if you suspect a skin abnormality — such as moles that have changed, or off-pink flaky lesions that do not heal (particularly on the head and neck). Make sure to mention these concerns during your appointment with the dermatologist. 

Caring for your skin’s future, now

Now you know what melanoma is, what causes it, and how to be proactive against it. This knowledge is the first step towards a world without skin cancer.

What’s next? Share what you’ve learned with a friend, do your best to use broad spectrum sunscreen daily, and examine your skin regularly. Dr. Puig agrees, “These steps, simple but fundamental, help ensure prevention and early detection.”

1 What is melanoma skin cancer? What Is Melanoma? (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/about/what-is-melanoma.html 

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