Incidence rates of melanoma have risen especially steeply since the mid-1970s. The two principal strategies for reduction of risk of melanoma and other skin cancers are sun avoidance and use of chemical sunscreens. Rising trends in the incidence of and mortality from melanoma have continued since the 1970s and 1980s, when sunscreens with high sun protection factors became widely used. Commonly used chemical sunscreens block ultraviolet B (UVB) but are virtually transparent to ultraviolet A (UVA), which makes up 90 to 95% of ultraviolet energy in the solar spectrum. Because sunscreens prevent erythema and sunburn, and inhibit accommodation of the skin to sunlight, their use may permit excessive exposure of the skin to portions of the solar spectrum other than UVB. If melanoma and basal cell carcinoma are initiated or promoted by solar radiation other than UVB, as laboratory data suggest, then UVB sunscreens might not be effective in preventing these cancers, and sunscreen use might increase the risk of their occurrence. Alternative explanations for the rapid rise in the incidence and mortality rates of melanoma, such as changes in patterns of recreational sun exposure, are discussed. Traditional means of limiting overexposure to the sun, such as wearing of hats and adequate clothing and avoidance of prolonged sunbathing, may be more prudent than reliance on chemical sunscreens.