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Melanoma is a cancer that develops from melanocytes, which are cells that make melanin, the skin’s natural pigment. The skin produces more melanin as a response to damage from ultraviolet (UV) light, causing the skin to darken or tan.
Extra melanin is found in moles and other pigmented areas of the skin, including freckles or other dark spots. When damaged, melanocytes can become cancerous. UV exposure is sometimes the cause of melanoma. Other causes are not completely understood.
The best way to reduce the risk of developing melanoma is to limit your exposure to the sun and other sources of UV rays. Dermatologists at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center recommend avoiding the sun between 10:00AM and 4:00PM, when its rays tend to be strongest.
If staying indoors isn’t an option, use other protective measures: Seek shade, cover skin with clothing, and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays.
In addition, apply a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen, which blocks ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays, which are both damaging forms of UV light. Our doctors recommend applying sunscreen a half hour before going outside and every two hours thereafter. Look for an SPF of at least 30. Make it a daily habit all year round; this protection is needed even on cool, cloudy days.
Sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, which helps your bones absorb calcium. NYU Langone doctors recommend talking to your primary care doctor about whether you should take a vitamin D supplement when trying to limit sun exposure. A blood test can detect a low vitamin D level.
Finally, doctors recommend avoiding tanning beds. They produce very high levels of UV light, 50 times more intense than the sun, and significantly increase your risk of melanoma. People who use tanning beds before the age of 30 increase their lifetime risk of melanoma by 75 percent and also have an elevated risk of intraocular melanoma, a form of eye cancer.
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