Does The Sun Cause Melanoma?

Yes. Isn’t the answer obvious? Doesn’t everyone know that the sun causes melanoma? Not so fast.

There are many people who think we dermatologists are needlessly frightening everyone. They argue that the sun is good for you because it boosts your vitamin D levels and that dermatologists are subsidized by the sunscreen industry. They argue that melanoma can occur in places that are not sun exposed (like the bottom of your feet), that sunscreens have never been proven to prevent melanoma, and that people who get sun every day, like farmers, are actually less likely to get melanoma. They’re right.

So, then does the sun cause melanoma? Yes. Melanoma is a potentially deadly skin cancer. Like other cancers (breast, lung, colon), there are many risk factors. Think of melanoma as a destination — the hell of skin cancer. There are many roads to that destination even though the final resting place is the same.

People who have light skin or a family history of melanoma have a much shorter route to arrive at melanoma. It takes less time and less environmental factors for them to get melanoma. People who have very dark skin have a very long road to melanoma; it is unlikely that they will arrive there in their lifetime. Older people are much more likely to develop melanoma than younger people (they have been travelling the road for much longer). Sun exposure, especially sun burns, pushes you farther down that road.

Brilliant research from people like Dr. Michael Stratton in the United Kingdom has shown that most of the mutations found in melanoma tumors are unquestionably the work of ultraviolet radiation damage to the DNA. We also know that people who use tanning beds before the age of 30 are 75% more likely to develop melanoma that those who do not.

The sun does have health benefits, but unfortunately it also is the main driver pushing us down the road to melanoma. Each person has to think about how far along the road to melanoma he or she is starting at to determine how careful to be with the sun.

Everyday in dermatology we see people who unexpectantly find themselves in a place they did not think possible — they have melanoma. Many don’t understand how they got there; it has been a long road. Stop and think about where you are along that journey. What are your risk factors of melanoma? It is never too late to stop and turn around.

Photo: Eduardo Amorim

15 thoughts on “Does The Sun Cause Melanoma?”

  1. Great article. I think bottom line is continue wearing a sunscreen all thru the day. I guess the sun exposure you get between the sunscreen wears off and you reapply it is more than enough for you!

  2. Does this mean that all infants and toddlers who received sun ray treatments in the 1950s can expect to suffer from skin cancer when they are older?


  3. Does this mean that all infants and toddlers who received sun ray treatments in the 1950s can expect to suffer from skin cancer when they are older?

  4. What would be your response to the lecture by Edward Gorham that links the increase in skin cancer to the use of sunscreen? There is also a recent report that discredits the sunbed review by the IARC from which you have used that now famous but completely flawed statistic of 75% increased likelihood of cancer from sunbed use. Links below:

  5. Super article! I’ll be sure to relay this info the next time someone states the sun doesn’t cause melanoma–I hear that way more often than I’d like.

  6. I have not had a chance to listen the the lecture yet, but I will. The relationship between our skin and sun is complicated. Prevention of skin cancer can be done without sunscreens and wearing sunscreens does not guarantee that skin cancer would be prevented. I look forward to hearing the lecture and commenting. Thank you for sending it.

  7. Excellent article you’ve really opened my eyes, but yes I agree wearing sunscreen is still very necessary, especially if your living in Australia!!

  8. For those of us that had several sunburns as children and are high risk, is there anything you can recommend doing to help reverse the damage already done? I’m a red head, blue-eyed 33 yr old that was raised in the Mid-Atlantic and fortunately, never sunbathed as a teenager and have never stepped foot into a tanning salon (largely b/c I don’t really tan and secondly, I don’t like being hot!). BUT as a younger child, I spent a considerable amount of time at a community pool and burned more than I’d care to remember. I haven’t had a sunburn in years, am very conscious/aware of my skin, make at least an annual trip to my dermatologist (or more often if I have a spot that concerns me), minimize my time in the sun during ‘peak’ hours, am a big fan of big hats, shade, etc., and eat a well-balanced, non-processed food diet. I’ve had several moles removed that I felt concern about, but they’ve all been normal. I am scared to death of melanoma, so again, just curious, is there anything else you would recommend that could help “lengthen our road”?

  9. is a charity that is of great importance to its creator.
    This website is a fantastic source of information and opportunity to raise awareness of Malignant Melanoma.
    We aim to highlight the dangers of over exposure to the sun, the use of sunbeds and also raise funds for research and clinical trials for Malignant Melanoma.

  10. Great Read. I will continue with wearing sunscreen before going outside.

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