OBJECTIVE: To determine which host characteristics are risk factors for cutaneous malignant melanoma in order to aim prevention and early detection programs at people at high risk. DESIGN: Case-control study. SETTING: Southern Ontario. SUBJECTS: The 583 case subjects were aged 20 to 69 years and had had malignant melanoma newly diagnosed between Oct. 1, 1984, and Sept. 30, 1986. The 608 control subjects were randomly selected from a list of residents in the study area and were stratum matched for age, sex and municipality. INTERVENTION: Through in-person interviews the interviewer ascertained exposure to putative external risk factors and assessed skin colour and number of nevi on the arm, and the subject reported his or her natural hair colour at age 20 years, eye colour, skin reaction to repeated sun exposure, and freckle and whole-body nevus densities. RESULTS: Although all the host factors mentioned were significantly associated with melanoma risk when considered separately, only hair colour, skin reaction to repeated sun exposure, and self-reported freckle and nevus densities remained significant after backward logistic regression analysis. The odds ratio for melanoma was estimated to be 10.7 in people who had many nevi compared with those who had none (95% confidence interval [CI] 6.6 to 17.4), 4.0 in people who had red hair compared with those who had black hair (95% CI 1.9 to 8.2), 1.9 in people who had many freckles compared with those who had none or few (95% CI 1.3 to 2.8) and 1.4 respectively in people who burned and had a subsequent increase in tan and those who burned and had no increase in tan after repeated sun exposure compared with those who did not burn [corrected]. CONCLUSIONS: Four risk factors for malignant melanoma have been identified. Prospective evaluation of their predictive value should be done. In the meantime, however, these factors should be used to identify people apparently at high risk for malignant melanoma, who can then be targeted for early detection and prevention programs.