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?

We understand it’s a big, and often scary subject to tackle — but it’s also a very important one. In 2023, the American Cancer Society estimates that 97,610 new melanomas will be diagnosed, as rates of melanoma rise across the USA. Yet, many of these cases are preventable through knowledge and early detection. 

And as leaders in sun protection, it’s our mission to bring attention to understanding the causes and early symptoms of melanoma. We’ve teamed up with two leading dermatologists to share guidance that you can depend on:

Dr. Susana Puig and Dr. Simmons O Brien ISDIN

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

What is melanoma? 

The clues are in the name: Melanocytes are the cells in your skin that give your skin its color. And Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that occurs when melanocytes start to reproduce uncontrollably. It’s also the most aggressive form of skin cancer. So, while it’s less common than many other types of skin cancer, it can be more dangerous. (1)

Although melanoma is a form of skin cancer, it can spread very rapidly to other parts of the body. Once melanoma spreads, it’s considered invasive and can potentially become life-threatening. That’s why educating yourself about skin cancer (just like you are right now!) is incredibly important. (1)

What does melanoma look like? We’ll get into that in detail a bit later, but it’s often a change in the size, shape, color, or texture of a mole. Keep in mind that it can present differently in different people.

Many melanomas exhibit a bluish or black area. A melanoma can also present as a new mole, which may look abnormal when compared to ‘regular’ moles.

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?

Short answer: the sun. On top of being responsible for 80% of visible skin aging, repeated exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV rays) increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma.

Repeated sun exposure can cause the appearance of lesions on the skin. And these lesions can be precancerous or cancerous. Within the realm of cancerous lesions, lies melanoma. 

Anyone can get skin cancer even if they aren’t especially at risk. But, the likelihood increases in those who:

  • Have lighter skin tones
  • Had sunburns during childhood
  • Spend many hours in the sun (for leisure or for occupation)
  • 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?

There are three steps that can help you minimize the risk of melanoma and all types of skin cancer: sun protection, self-examination, and dermatological examination. With the help of Dr. Puig and Dr. O’Brien, let’s dive in:

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

Not all melanomas can be prevented (some cases are related to genetics). But you can take steps to reduce the risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer. 

How to help prevent melanoma ISDIN

“Daily protection from the sun helps us minimize the risk of skin cancer.”

Dr. Susana Puig

Here are some tips to get you started:

✅ 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 factors that increases the risk of skin cancer and melanoma the most.

Wondering how much sunscreen to apply? Or which kind? Dr. O’Brien advises, “What we tell our patients in regards to how much sunscreen they should use is at least two shot glasses’ worth from head to toe, and to reapply that sunscreen every two hours, especially after swimming and significant sweating. (As for facial sunscreen,) I’m a big supporter of Eryfotona Actinica, which is a broad spectrum SPF 50+ sunscreen that helps to repair your skin with photolyase enzymes.”

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.

Protect yourself from melanoma ISDIN

Step 2: Know the signs of melanoma and perform a self-examination

So, what are the early warning signs of melanoma? While self-exams can’t diagnose melanoma or replace your yearly visit to the dermatologist, they can help you be proactive. 

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 a change in a freckle or skin pigmentation. Something else to look out for? A mole that looks different from the others on your skin.

Dr. O’Brien shares a useful technique to help identify melanoma, “The detection of melanoma early is so important because it is a treatable, potentially curable disease if caught early. What we tell our patients is to look at their skin and to know what the ABCDE of melanoma means.”

Follow the ABCDE technique:

  • Asymmetry: the outline of one half of the mole is different from the other.
  • Borders: 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 does not heal.
  • The color of the mole spreading from the edge of a mark to the surrounding skin.
  • Reddening or new inflammation beyond the mole border.
  • Change in feeling (itching, tenderness or pain).
  • Change in the surface of a mole (peeling, exudation, bleeding or an apparent protuberance or nodule).

If you detect any moles or marks on your skin with the above characteristics, visit your dermatologist for a skin examination and diagnosis.

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. Moreover, people with melanoma risk factors should have a skin exam at least once per year. 

How is a skin examination conducted at the dermatologist’s office?

When you get to your appointment, your healthcare professional will analyze all moles on your body, and interpret them with diagnostic imaging techniques. It is important to examine the whole body because sometimes melanoma can appear in places that are not easily visible.

Dermatologists can combine several techniques for a skin examination including digital dermoscopy, or a handheld dermoscope.

New computerized diagnostic systems can generate complete body maps as well as locate lesions and file the images. This helps to monitor the patient and detect minimal changes in their moles that may suggest that they are becoming malignant.

Although this may seem time-consuming, Dr. Puig told explained that analyzing around 100 moles can take just 90 seconds.

Dermoscope to diagnose melanoma ISDIN

“Dermoscopy is an imaging technique to see structures that are not visible to the naked eye. It magnifies up to 30 times and prevents the stratum corneum from reflecting light so we can see deep into the skin. This improves diagnostic accuracy by 25%.”

Dr. Susana Puig

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. 

Now you know what melanoma is, what causes it, and how to be proactive against the risk of skin cancer. Remembering to use broad spectrum sunscreen daily and examine your skin regularly are great steps to get you started. And above all, love your skin, care for it, and protect it, always. 

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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Article written and reviewed by:

Editorial Team

Our namesake embodies the spirit of embracing life and all its wonder. As wellness journalists, we explore topics that invigorate the senses and keep curiosity alive. We believe that glowing skin is the result of a healthy body and mind. Weaving beauty with science, we aim to inspire you to live young at every age.

Medical Communication Manager

In addition to ten years as a primary care doctor, Aurora has over 23 years of experience developing and communicating healthcare products, most recently in dermo-cosmetics. She has co-authored many publications in dermatological journals and spoken at international health & beauty conferences. Ref: Colegio de Medicos de Madrid numero 282840102

1 Comment
  1. I didn’t know that melanoma is the most aggressive kind of skin cancer. My sister recently found out that she might have melanoma, so my family and I are trying to learn more about it and raise awareness about it. I think that it would be smart to make sure that we are taking care of our skin and I think it might also be smart to get some melanoma awareness pins to help start conversations about it and help show our support. Thanks for detailing what melanoma is and how to detect it.

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